Monday, December 27, 2010

Improvisational Brain

This article is simply the best thing I've ever seen on what improvisation is and the neuroscience involved. Many thanks to Martin I. Gaines for the tip.

. . .The trajectory of acquiring a language, according to Berkowitz, where you begin with learned phrases, achieve fluency, and are eventually able to create poetry mirrors perfectly the process of learning to improvise. In the same way a language student learns words, phrases and grammatical structure so that later he can recombine them to best communicate his thoughts, a musician collects and commits to memory patterns of notes, chords and progressions, which he can later draw from to express his musical ideas. . .

. . . At this level of musical cognition, the improviser often achieves a seamless trade-off between his conscious and subconscious knowledge. He knows he’s creating the music and feels very much in control, yet he also feels as if he’s watching himself play, a paradox that Berkowitz calls the creator/witness phenomenon. “They’ll be playing and something happens that they didn’t quite expect,” Berkowitz said. “Then they react to that and it kind of starts this dialogue where the improviser is steering the ship, but is also being steered by the ship.” . . . 

. . .When Berkowitz and Ansari looked at the subjects’ brain maps, they found three regions that were activated during all tasks that involved improvisation, whether it was rhythmic or melodic
 . . . the anterior cingulate, is enlisted for most cognitive tasks, especially when the brain needs to decide between a surfeit of potentially conflicting responses
 . . . the dorsal premotor cortex, acts as a type of command center for crucial sensory input about where the body is and how it negotiates space. If the body has to move, what will be its goal and how fast should it go? Analyzing this input, the region issues a plan of action. When the musicians started to improvise, this region, already active during the playing of memorized melodies, ramped up significantly, possibly due to the musicians’ need to execute anything they could conceive of playing
. . . .the inferior frontal gyrus/ventral premotor cortex—has long been known as an area key to our ability to understand and produce language. While more recent studies have linked it to music processing, Berkowitz and Ansari are the first to show that it plays a role in generating music as well. This would seem to strengthen the theory that music functions similar to language in the brain 

. . . .Results showed a veritable symphony of activated and deactivated brain regions during improvisation, which included the regions noted by Berkowitz and Ansari. The strangest activity, Limb said, occurred in the prefrontal cortex, where the scientists observed a surge in medial prefrontal activity, the “self-expressive, autobiographical brain region,” and, simultaneously, a broad deactivation in the lateral prefrontal regions, the area that governs self-consciousness and inhibition. In other words, in the improviser’s brain, the area that imposes self-restraint powers down, allowing the region that drives self-expression, which ramps up, to proceed virtually unchecked. “This notion of trying to tell your own musical story, without the constraints of caring how well it’s going as you’re saying it, was really pretty intriguing,” Limb said.

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