Neuron Culture

How Jazz Players Get into the Zone

Jazz player
A jazz player’s brain: Brain activation while improvising. Blue areas are deactivated comparable to normal, orange and read are ramped up. From PLOS One.

An intriguing finding: While improvising, jazz players seem to turn OFF the part of the brain that (to quote a new study just published in PLOS One) “typically mediate self-monitoring and conscious volitional control of ongoing performance.” They’re in what athletes call the zone, where they navigate the oncoming musical terrain by a sort of flexible trained instinct, like boulder-hopping downhill: Think about it and you stumble. Lovely stuff. But what part of the brain, then, is monitoring and responding? The sensorimotor areas, which are the same ones an athlete would use.

This strengthens my long-held conviction that playing sports and playing an instrument (I play tennis, baseball, ski, and play the violin — the sports better than the violin, as family and neighbors can attest) are processes very much alike. Thus, among other things, the psychically cleansing effect that playing either tennis or the violin well produces: You are, in some senses, quite out of your mind for a while.

My bet is that if you could get Roger Federer in the scanner — playing tennis, that is, — you’d find similar brain-activation patterns. Time will come.

The study, by Charles Limb and Allen Braun at the NIH, is online and free at PLOS, is “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” Abstract:

We found that improvisation (compared to production of over-learned musical sequences) was consistently characterized by a dissociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex: extensive deactivation of dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions with focal activation of the medial prefrontal (frontal polar) cortex. Such a pattern may reflect a combination of psychological processes required for spontaneous improvisation, in which internally motivated, stimulus-independent behaviors unfold in the absence of central processes that typically mediate self-monitoring and conscious volitional control of ongoing performance. Changes in prefrontal activity during improvisation were accompanied by widespread activation of neocortical sensorimotor areas (that mediate the organization and execution of musical performance) as well as deactivation of limbic structures (that regulate motivation and emotional tone). This distributed neural pattern may provide a cognitive context that enables the emergence of spontaneous creative activity.