Your Brain on Jazz

Scientists find that improvisation quiets down the inhibition area of the brain--but how researcher's improvised the study technique is every bit as impressive

Keyboard

Using a specialized keyboard, researchers at Johns Hopkins University were able to use fMRI to scan musicians mid-jam without jamming their equipmentJohns Hopkins University

Scientists have discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, areas of their brains associated with inhibition quiet down, and those involved with self-expression heat up. The study required a little technical ingenuity, since the scientists needed to use fMRI to read what was going on in the musicians brains, and the powerful magnets in those scanners mean you can't use standard instruments with metal parts. Charles Limb, a jazz saxophonist who doubles as a scientist at Johns Hopkins University, and his group recruited six jazz pianists, and had them jam on the special keyboard while watching the fMRI machine read their brain activity.

Next, the scientists hope to apply the technique to study other artists, including poets. You have to wonder how that's going to go, and how much time they'll have to reserve in the fMRI room while the poets mull over their words.