This Is Your Brain on Bach

Musicians really do think differently than the rest of us. Vanderbilt psychologists have found that professionally trained musicians more effectively use a creative technique called divergent thinking, and use both the left and right sides of their frontal cortex more heavily than the average person.

Previous studies of creativity have focused on divergent thinking—the ability to come up with new solutions to open-ended, multifaceted problems. Highly creative individuals often display more divergent thinking than their less creative counterparts.

Vanderbilt researchers Crystal Gibson, Bradley Folley and Sohee Park recruited 20 classical music students from the Vanderbilt Blair School of Music and 20 non-musicians from a Vanderbilt introductory psychology course.

“We were interested in how individuals who are naturally creative look at problems that are best solved by thinking ‘out of the box,’” says Folley, MA’02, PhD’06, a postdoctoral fellow. “We studied musicians because creative thinking is part of their daily experience, and we found that there were qualitative differences in the types of answers they gave to problems and in their associated brain activity.”

The two groups were matched based on age, gender, education, sex, high school grades and SAT scores. The musicians each had at least eight years of training and played a variety of instruments, including piano, woodwind, string and percussion. Overall, researchers found that the musicians had higher IQ scores than the non-musicians, supporting recent studies that intensive musical training is associated with an elevated IQ score.

Research subjects were shown a variety of household objects and asked to make up new functions for them, and were also given a written word association test. Musicians provided more correct responses than non-musicians on the word association test—something the researchers believe may be attributed to enhanced verbal ability among musicians. Musicians also suggested more novel uses for the household objects than their non-musical counterparts.

In a second experiment the two groups again were asked to identify new uses for everyday objects, but this time they also were asked to perform a basic control task while activity in their prefrontal lobes was monitored using a brain-scanning technique called near-infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS.

“When we measured subjects’ prefrontal cortical activity while completing the alternate-uses task, we found that trained musicians had greater activity in both sides of their frontal lobes,” Folley says. “Because we equated musicians and non-musicians in terms of their performance, this finding was not simply due to the fact that the musicians invented more uses; there seems to be a qualitative difference in how they think about this information.”

One possible explanation for the musicians’ elevated use of both brain hemispheres is that many musicians must be able to use both hands independently to play their instruments.

“Musicians may be particularly good at efficiently accessing and integrating competing information from both hemispheres,” Folley says. “Instrumental musicians often integrate different melodic lines with both hands into a single musical piece, and they have to be very good at simultaneously reading the musical symbols, which are like left-hemisphere-based language, and integrating the written music with their own interpretation, which has been linked to the right hemisphere.”

Folley and Park are investigators in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. Park is a professor of psychology and psychiatry and a member of the Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience. Gibson, BA’04, was an undergraduate student and research assistant in the psychology department at the time of the study. Their research, which was partially supported by a Vanderbilt University Discovery Grant, will appear in the journal Brain and Cognition.

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