Thursday, October 9, 2008

Musicians Use Both Sides of the Brain Than Nonmusicians: Divergent Thinking

Supporting what many of us who are not musically talented have oftenfelt, new research reveals that trained musicians really do thinkdifferently than the rest of us. Vanderbilt University psychologistshave found that professionally trained musicians more effectively use acreative technique called divergent thinking, and also use both the leftand the right sides of their frontal cortex more heavily than theaverage person.The research by Crystal Gibson, Bradley Folley and Sohee Park iscurrently in press at the journal Brain and Cognition."We were interested in how individuals who are naturally creative lookat problems that are best solved by thinking 'out of the box'," Folleysaid. "We studied musicians because creative thinking is part of theirdaily experience, and we found that there were qualitative differencesin the types of answers they gave to problems and in their associatedbrain activity."

One possible explanation the researchers offer for the musicians'elevated use of both brain hemispheres is that many musicians must beable to use both hands independently to play their instruments."Musicians may be particularly good at efficiently accessing andintegrating competing information from both hemispheres," Folley said."Instrumental musicians often integrate different melodic lines withboth hands into a single musical piece, and they have to be very good atsimultaneously reading the musical symbols, which are like left-hemisphere-based language, and integrating the written music with theirown interpretation, which has been linked to the right hemisphere."

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

To conduct the study, the researchers recruited 20 classical musicstudents from the Vanderbilt Blair School of Music and 20 non-musiciansfrom a Vanderbilt introductory psychology course. The musicians each hadat least eight years of training. The instruments they played includedthe piano, woodwind, string and percussion instruments. The groups werematched based on age, gender, education, sex, high school grades and SATscores.The researchers conducted two experiments to compare the creativethinking processes of the musicians and the control subjects. In thefirst experiment, the researchers showed the research subjects a varietyof household objects and asked them to make up new functions for them,and also gave them a written word association test. The musicians gavemore correct responses than non-musicians on the word association test,which the researchers believe may be attributed to enhanced verbalability among musicians. The musicians also suggested more novel usesfor the household objects than their non-musical counterparts.In the second experiment, the two groups again were asked to identifynew uses for everyday objects as well as to perform a basic control taskwhile the activity in their prefrontal lobes was monitored using a brainscanning technique called near-infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS. NIRSmeasures changes in blood oxygenation in the cortex while an individualis performing a cognitive task."When we measured subjects' prefrontal cortical activity whilecompleting the alternate uses task, we found that trained musicians hadgreater activity in both sides of their frontal lobes. Because weequated musicians and non-musicians in terms of their performance, thisfinding was not simply due to the musicians inventing more uses; thereseems to be a qualitative difference in how they think about thisinformation," Folley said.The researchers also found that, overall, the musicians had higher IQscores than the non-musicians, supporting recent studies that intensivemusical training is associated with an elevated IQ score.

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