Brain States

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Musical Improvisers Have Better Connections Between Brain Regions

Playing the piano

There’s a difference between a classical pianist who sits down to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and a jazz pianist with hours of improvisational experience who is comfortable making up a melody in front of an audience.

The difference, it turns out, can be seen as well as heard. Seen by a brain scanner, that is.

The effects of long-term musical practice on the brain are well documented, but scientists have only begun to explore how the type of musical training can change the neural effects. In a study out this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, Ana Luísa Pinho and colleagues set out to investigate the neural basis of musical creativity, or improvisation.

The scientist put 39 professional pianists into a MRI scanner and assessed brain activity and connectivity as the pianists improvised tunes on a keyboard placed on their laps. The musicians also filled out a questionnaire on the number of hours they rehearsed classical music and practiced improvisation in an average week.

Pinho and her colleagues found that the more a musician practiced improvisation, the greater the connectivity between certain brain regions was as they improvised. The highly connected brain regions were areas that have to do with planning, abstract reasoning, and movement control – specifically, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the presupplementary motor area, and the dorsal premotor cortex.  This result supports the idea that there may be no specific brain region that generates creative thought: rather, creativity may be generated by a distributed network of brain regions working in symphony.

Surprisingly, at the same time that the connectivity between these areas increased, the overall activity of prefrontal brain regions decreased according to how much a musician had practiced improvisation. This decrease in the activity of areas used for planning and cognitive control suggests there there is a degree of automation during extemporaneous playing when one is practiced at it.

This may reflect the subjective experience of improvisers – that when they are performing, they are not thinking hard, but are in a state of flow.  The improvisational playing feels automatic, despite being unique and creative.

Improvisation requires a musician to build up a library of musical phrases and motifs over time, to be accessed when playing and put together in new and expressive ways.  Creativity requires training. This work suggests the intriguing possibility that creativity can, to some extent, become automatic to the brain.

Related postEarly musical training gives older adults an advantage

ReferenceConnecting to Create: Expertise in Musical Improvisation Is Associated with Increased Functional Connectivity between Premotor and Prefrontal Areas (2014) Ana Luísa Pinho, Örjan de Manzano, Peter Fransson, Helene Eriksson, and Fredrik Ullén. J Neurosci 34(18): 6156-6163


When We’re In Sync, So Are Our Brains

We all know those moments. The electrifying seconds when the home team makes a goal, or bride says her vows, or the presidential favorite wins the election. The moments when an entire room full of people is feeling exactly the same way, at exactly the same time, because they share a common perspective.

The emotion runs high because everyone is riding the same roller coaster of events, each new twist and turn causing fresh reactions.   Our emotions are jerked like rag dolls.  The result looks so synchronized, it could be choreographed.

When we are all cheering for the same goal, both our bodies and our minds become synchronized.  You throw your hands up at the same time as the rest of the stadium, and your brains are also doing the same thing. In each head, the visual cortex is processing the game, the motor cortex is holding up the arms, and the attention-controlling networks are riveting us all to the events as they unfold.

And when you are rooting for the same person, the Action-Observation Network in the frontoparietal region of starts humming in synchrony with those around you.  In fact, it is this neural synchrony that allows you to share a moment with others.

That’s the implication of a study released in the Journal of Neuroscience. In it, scientists measured the blood flow to the brains of people who were watching a boxing match. In some cases, the scientists told the subjects to watch the match as they normally would. But sometimes they told the subjects to watch the match while paying close attention to a particular boxer, trying hard to simulate in their own minds the actions and emotions of that boxer.

When different subjects focused on the same boxer, their brains began to oscillate in phase with one another in the somatosensory cortex- the part of the brain that is responsible for the sense of touch. The somatosensory cortex also plays a big role in allowing you to mentally “mirror” the actions of another person, so that you can monitor them and understand their motivations.

Importantly, the brain synchrony was bigger when the subjects were paying attention to the same boxer than when the subjects were just watching the video casually. It’s the attention to the actions and feelings of another that caused the brain regions to activate – because in large part, the brain uses the same area to understand the way someone else is feeling as to feel that way itself. 

This report is one in a long line of evidence suggesting that time-locked brain activity shared by individuals is the basic process that supports interpersonal understanding.

Just think. All our moments of mutual understanding may depend on our brains being in sync with one another.


Nummenmaa L, Smirnov D, Lahnakoski JM, Glerean E, Jääskeläinen IP, Sams M, Hari R (2014) Mental action simulation synchronizes action-observation circuits across individuals. J Neurosci 34:748–757.


Are experiences heritable?


We all know that our ancestors pass their genes on to us, but what if they are also giving us something else? Evidence is mounting that we also receive an imprint of the experiences that they lived while we were nothing but a gleam in the eye.

In paper published this week in Nature Neuroscience, authors Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler, or Emory University, explore this phenomenon in mice.

They pair a particular smelly chemical with a mild foot shock in virgin adult mice, and then allow those mice to breed and procreate. Once the offspring of the original mice grow up, they give them a whiff of the same odor, and measure how much fear they show. Although the second generation has never smelled the chemical before, they behave as if they themselves had had the unpleasant experiences with it that their parents had before they were even conceived.

The second generation also had physical changes to the brain, specifically in the olfactory epithelium, which is the part of the brain that detects odors. The second generation had a much larger portion of the brain devoted to the detection of that odor than did control mice.

Could it be that they parents are somehow teaching their children that the odor is bad as they are growing up? To test this idea, the authors used two methods. First, they tested mice that were raised by foster parents who had no experiences with the odor. Still, the children responded to the odor with fear.  Second, they tested mice in the third generation. Neither they nor their parents had any experience with the odor that their grandparents had such bad associations with.  But the third generation mice still reacted to the odor fearfully.

So what is going on here? It turns out that not only the genome, but the regulation of the genome, is heritable between generations. This is referred to by biologists as epigenetics. The DNA itself is tagged as an organism lives. Some genes get big flashing arrows that declare “Hey!! This is really important!” whereas others that never really mattered are greyed out. And these annotations are passed along to offspring, right along with the A’s and T’s and G’s and C’s.

Is there evidence that such a thing could be happening in humans? Yes, actually, there are many anecdotal observations that support this idea. For instance, the grandchildren of people who experienced the Dutch famine of 1944 during the German occupation of the Netherlands are smaller than average.

So if you haven’t had kids yet, but are planning to in the future, there are now even more reasons to be careful how you live. Your grandchildren may be feeling it in the future.

Reference: B.G. Dias and K.J. Ressler  (2013) Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nature Neuroscience