!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Cognition in Improvisation

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cognition in Improvisation

As indicated in a number of previous posts, I'm quite interested in learning what I can about the nature of improvisation.1

Among other things, improvisation an important aspect of handling problem situtions in which time is of the essence, which means developing skill at improvising is important for businesspeople. Indeed, a good working definition of improvised decision-making is that adopted by Mendonça, Wallace, and Beroggi:
reworking knowledge to produce a novel action in time to meet the requirements of the given situation.2
In June of last year, Aaron Berkowitz, then a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Harvard, and Daniel Ansari, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario, published a paper reporting the results of research investigating which regions of the brain are active during musical improvisation.3 The Harvard Gazette published a summary of the research in February.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Berkowitz and Ansari identified three regions of the brain involved in melodic and rhythmic improvisation:
  • The inferior frontal gyrus seems to be activated for generating musical-motor sequences. It is an area "known to be involved when people speak and understand language. It's also active when people hear and understand music." Now Berkowitz and Ansari have produced evidence that "it's involved when people make music."

  • The rostral cingulate zone of the anterior cingulate cortex seems to be activated for selecting the musical-motor sequences to use. It is "a part of the brain that appears to be involved in conflict monitoring — when you're trying to sort out two conflicting possibilities ... It's involved with decisionmaking ..."

  • The dorsal premotor cortex is seems to be activated for executing the musical-motor sequences the improvising musician has selected. It "takes information about where the body is in space, makes a motor plan, and sends it to the motor cortex to execute the plan."
In talking about his findings, which were part of his dissertation research (he received his Ph.D this year), Berkowitz emphasizes that not only do we now know more about where in the brain the act of musical improvisation is processed, but we also know more about the functions of the three regions that fMRI indicates are involved.

1 See here, here, here, here, here, and here.

2 David Mendonça, William A. Wallace, and Giampiero E.G. Beroggi, "Development of a Decision Logic to Support Group Improvisation: An Application to Emergency Response," 35th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (January 7-10, 2002), Vol. 8 (2002), p. 220b.

3 Aaron L. Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari, "Generation of Novel Motor Sequences: The Neural Correlates of Musical Improvisation," NeuroImage, Vol. 41, No. 2 (June 2008), pp. 535-543.


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