Think Different: Musicians' Brains


I'm always fascinated by brain studies that confirm long-held (but previously unprovable) hunches, like the idea that musicians' brains are different than regular folks'. As an amateur musician myself (Higgins actually taught me to play guitar when we were teenagers), I know there's something going on when I'm burnin' up the fretboard; for one thing, like many guitarists I get "guitar face" -- a strange kind of grimace overtakes my features, and it's really tough to control. (Witness BB King's trademark guitar face at left.) So what in Sam Hill's going on in my brain?

Recently, two very different studies were conducted on musicians' cognition. The first one stuck jazz musicians in MRI machines and had them play -- while trapped in the most unpleasant, claustrophobic tube imaginable. What they found was that "large areas of the brain responsible for monitoring ones own behavior" all but shut down -- which helps explain both guitar face, and the lack of inhibition that "in the zone" musicians seem to experience. Other brain patterns seemed to emulate a kind of dream state. Most interestingly, the researchers were able to conclude that there is no single area of the brain responsible for creativity -- instead they saw "a strong and consistent pattern of activity throughout the brain that enables creativity."

That last analysis very much supports the results of the second study, which compared to sticking sax players in MRI machines was pretty low-tech: researchers asked a group of piano, string wind and percussion players in invent "new uses for everyday household objects" -- and on average, they came up with 14 more uses than nonmusicians did. (Then just for good measure, they decided to stick 'em in an MRI anyway.) What they discovered was pretty fascinating: musicians use more of both hemispheres, more frequently than regular folks do -- which explains why they can read notes on a page (a left-brain activity) and immediately turn them into music (a right-brain activity).

So it turns out rock 'n' roll doesn't kill your brain after all!