The Loh Down On Science

What happens in jazz pianists' brains as they play?

Charles Limb & Allen Braun, PLOS One, 2008

Areas of activation (red) and deactivation (blue) in the brain of someone improvising jazz, from a 2008 study by Charles Limb. [Caption modified from original for clarity.]

Jazz rooms can be small, but this one is the smallest!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Meet Charles Limb.  He’s an ear, nose, and throat researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  He’s also a jazz musician. 

Jazz is about improvising.  Spontaneous creativity!  Limb wondered:  What goes on in our brains when we improvise?  Does the brain function differently, compared to when we perform prepared music?

To find out, he gathered six jazz pianists.  He had each perform in the smallest gig evah:  Inside an MRI machine. 

Limb had a special keyboard built. It contained no magnetic parts, so it wouldn’t interfere with the MRI. 

Placing the keyboard on their knees, each musician performed four short pieces, while lying inside the tube.  Two pieces were pre-written, two improvised.  The MRI recorded their brain activity.

Result?  While the pianists improvised, their brains’ inhibition areas turned off!  Self-expression areas?  Lit up!  As did regions for all six senses.  So the musicians were freely expressing themselves through music, uncensored, with heightened sensory awareness.

After jazz kness, next study—which brain areas light up for jazz hands.  We're guessing all of them.

***** For more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


blog comments powered by Disqus