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fMRI Study: Brain Chemistry at the Root of Emotional Intent in Jazz Improvisation

By Steve Nagel s.nagel@classicalite.com on Mar 04, 2016 09:00 AM EST

Humanity has been trying to affix a cerebral explanation to the seemingly ineffable and emotionally complex mechanisms of the musical mind for centuries, and accordingly to the results of an experiment recently conducted at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, a cerebral explanation is exactly what they've arrived at; it's simple brain chemistry. The published findings are called "Emotional Intent Modulates The Neural Substrates Of Creativity: An fMRI Study of Emotionally Targeted Improvisation in Jazz Musicians".

In the study, professional jazz musicians had their brains scanned via fMRI while they improvised at the keyboard. As they played, visual cues would direct the musicians to alter their music's emotional state; the cues ranged from positive, to ambiguous, to negative valences. The brain scans then ascertained which unique brain patterns belonged to the specific feelings or emotional intent of the musician's jazz improvisation.

An attached figure illustrates the nature of the visual cues that were presented to the musicians in connection with the length of time they were shown. The fluctuations in time spent on each image functioned as a "control" to better assess the true spontaneity of each musical choice.

Some interesting conclusions were derived from the fMRI study, one being that, as happier emotions were expressed researchers noted a deactivation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, working memory, and abstract reasoning --- in essence, what is called a "flow state" or complete immersion in the moment. By contrast, sad emotions were found to be "more clearly linked to a stronger visceral experience, and greater activity in reward processing areas of the brain."

The fMRI study -- despite following a number of other studies on the creative mind -- is important in that it directly addresses "the role of expressing emotion through naturalistic improvisation." According the Pacific Standard, upon further study these findings will help explain the fundamental brain chemistry at play, "the human urge to express emotions through art," and how emotional intent can translate to music --- if perhaps limited, for now, merely to jazz improvisation.

Here's an example of an fMRI in action:

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Tagsmedical study, Neuroscience of Music, Emotional, Jazz, Improvisation