Jazz greats have said that spinning off an improvised tune is like entering another world, and a new study has provided that world’s first map. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health gave six professional jazz pianists a few days to memorize a never-before-seen tune. The musicians then tickled the ivories while being scanned by an MRI machine, playing the novel composition and an improvisation in the same key.

As compared with the memorized melody, the improvised jam elicited stronger activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain active in autobiographical storytelling, among other varieties of self-expression. Supporting the altered-state notion, activity dipped in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (an area linked to planning and self-censorship), which, the researchers point out, is similar to what happens during dreams. They note that the same pattern might show up in all kinds of improvisations, from solving problems on the fly to riffing on a topic of high interest—such as, say, your favorite jazz musicians

This story was originally printed with the title, "Roots of Creativity".