Singing and Imagining Improvised Music Elicits Flow-Like Brain States

Summary: Singing and imagined musical improvisation were associated with weaker connectivity to the executive function network in the brain and to the feeling of flow, which allows for unhindered musical creativity.

Source: Georgia State University

A research team at Georgia State University has identified how the brain changes when artists are in a state of “flow” and found that simply imagining improvised performances elicits the same flow-like brain states as when musicians are singing.

In the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers recruited 21 advanced jazz musicians, who were prompted to vocalize or imagine one of the four scores from the Bebop era of jazz based on a standard 12-bar blues chordal progression while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The multidisciplinary research team — which includes experts in mathematics, physics, music, neuroscience and computer science — then used the fMRI data to identify how a musician’s brain reconfigures connectivity depending on the degree of creativity required during jazz performances, focusing on two major brain networks: the default mode network and the executive control network.

“We estimated static functional network connectivity as jazz musicians were vocalizing, imagining, improvising or performing pre-learned, memorized scores,” said principal investigator Victor M. Vergara.

Martin Norgaard, associate professor in the School of Music and co-author of the study, says the work provides new insight into the minds of expert jazz musicians at work.

“What’s so fascinating is that we saw very similar brain patterns and activity whether they were actually scat singing or just imagining an improvised performance,” said Norgaard.

The study builds on previous research demonstrating that subjects’ brains show lower functional connectivity during musical improvisation. The new findings reveal that improvisation is associated with a state of weak connectivity to the brain’s executive control network and to a feeling of “flow,” which allows unhindered musical creation.

“The executive control network is typically active in many tasks, including solving problems. The default mode network seems to be more active when a subject is in the resting state,” said Norgaard.  “We saw that when expert musicians are improvising, the brain is interfering less with their creativity.”

The study was conducted in collaboration with the Center for Translational Research in Neuroimaging and Data Science (TReNDS), which is supported by Georgia State, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. Vince Calhoun, founding director of TReNDS and a Distinguished University Professor in Psychology and Neuroscience, said the new study allowed researchers to observe widespread and richer effects of connectivity. It is the first analysis of whole brain connectivity during vocalized and imagined real-time production of creative output.

“The brain is highly dynamic, so mapping how brain function changes over time is a much more natural way to analyze the data and capture functional patterns linked to either behavioral conditions or to resting,” said Calhoun.

This shows a woman singing
The new findings reveal that improvisation is associated with a state of weak connectivity to the brain’s executive control network and to a feeling of “flow,” which allows unhindered musical creation. Image is in the public domain

As part of the team at TReNDS center, Vergara and his colleagues were able to extract signals from the brain using a non-invasive method to reduce any interference in the creative process. The team created a custom algorithm to identify the resting state networks.

“Brain imaging produces vast amounts of time-varying measurements that are difficult to parse. Pattern recognition algorithms were necessary to pinpoint the relevant brain areas involved in the creative process,” said Vergara. “We then compared the different patterns to understand the differences between performing improvisation and pre-rehearsed music.”

The study’s paradigm allows for the inclusion of expert jazz performers with many different instrument specializations, which suggests the results may be broadly applicable to all improvising musicians. Future research could adapt the same paradigm to other activities where creation happens in real time — like in performing freestyle rap or spoken-word poetry and even playing sports — potentially identifying common threads in the creative process inside the human brain.

“Now there are more specific questions we can consider, like what changes are happening in the brain while someone improvises or which different networks are involved,” said Norgaard. “That’s called dynamic connectivity, and that’s what we’re hoping to research next.”

About this music and neuroscience research news

Author: Noelle Reetz
Source: Georgia State University
Contact: Noelle Reetz – Georgia State University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Functional network connectivity during Jazz improvisation” by Victor M. Vergara, Martin Norgaard, Robyn Miller, Roger E. Beaty, Kiran Dhakal, Mukesh Dhamala & Vince D. Calhoun. Scientific Reports


Functional network connectivity during Jazz improvisation

One of the most complex forms of creativity is musical improvisation where new music is produced in real time. Brain behavior during music production has several dimensions depending on the conditions of the performance. The expression of creativity is suspected to be different whether novel ideas must be externalized using a musical instrument or can be imagined internally.

This study explores whole brain functional network connectivity from fMRI data during jazz music improvisation compared against a baseline of prelearned score performance. Given that creativity might be affected by external execution, another dimension where musicians imagine or vocalize the music was also tested.

We found improvisation was associated with a state of weak connectivity necessary for attenuated executive control network recruitment associated with a feeling of “flow” allowing unhindered musical creation.

In addition, elicited connectivity for sensorimotor and executive control networks is not different whether musicians imagine or externalize (through vocalization) musical performance.

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