Jazz improvisation has become a hot topic in neuroscience lately, and little wonder. Musical improvisation is one of the most complex forms of creative behavior. Research on the brains of improvisers offers a realistic task paradigm for the investigation of real-time creativity.
Researchers study jazz players for the same reason they take MRI scans of the brains of freestyle rappers, they both involve creating spontaneous works where revision is not possible, and where only a few formal rules govern the activity, whether rhyme and meter or chord structure and harmony. Those who master the basics can leap into endlessly complex feats of improvisatory bravado at any moment.
Many researchers of jazz improvisations also happen to be musicians, including study author Martin Norgaard, a trained jazz violinist who began studying the effects of musical improvisation while earning his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.
Norgaard interviewed both students and professional musicians, and analyzed Charlie Parker solos to find patterns related to specific kinds of brain activity. In this recent study, he used an fMRI to measure the brain activity of advanced jazz musicians who sang both standards and improvisations while being scanned.
While improvising, musicians show decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that generates planning and overthinking, and gets in the way of what psychologists call a state of "flow." Improvising might engage a smaller, more focused brain network while other parts of the brain go quiet.
Training and practice in improvisation may also have longer-term results as well. A study contrasting the brain activity of jazz and classical players found that the former were much quicker and more adaptable in their thinking. The researchers attributed these qualities to changes in the brain wrought by years of improvising.