training improves neuronal connectivity

Posted comment on ´Connecting to Create: Expertise in Musical Improvisation is Associated with Increased Functional Connectivity between Premotor and Prefrontal Areas` by A.L. Pinho, O. de Manzano, P. Fransson, H. Eriksson and F. Ullen published in The Journal of Neuroscience 34 (18) 2014 p. 6156


Pinho and colleagues investigated to what extent frontal areas involved in musical creativity are affected by training. Thirty nine pianists who had classical piano and improvisation experience took part in their study. Each pianist was required to fill out a questionnaire in order to calculate the amount of piano-playing experience they had and the following calculations were made: total number of hours improvising (designated Imphours), total experience (Totalhours), and experience in classical piano playing (Classhours). The test procedure involved each participant taking part in 6 sessions with 16 trials (35.5 sec) per session. Each trial consisted of an instruction period (3.5 secs) including presentation of a visual instruction slide with 4 different improvisation conditions (tonal and atonal, happy and fearful); a performance period (15secs) interrupted by a distractor task (visual esthetical judgement task, 11secs); followed by a rest period (6secs). Performance was rated as good or bad according to whether the constraint was adhered to and was also rated according to the complexity of the improvised music produced. Nine per cent of studies were disregarded. Activity in the left and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), left and right dorsal presupplementary motor areas (preSMA), and left and right premotor areas was measured using fMRI and psychophysiological interaction analysis (PPI) was used to analyse functional connectivity.
Pinho and colleagues study showed that there was a positive correlation between Imphours and age and a negative correlation with Classhours. They found a significant negative correlation between Imphours and brain activity during rest (Improvisation_Rest) in the areas right hemisphere DLPFC, IFG, anterior insular and angular gyrus and this observation was the same for all improvising constraints. There was no significant relation in brain activity during improvisation to Classhours and age was positively related to brain activity in the DLPFC, right parietal lobe, inferior frontal cortex partly overlapping with Imphours cluster activity. In answer to the question whether there was greater activity in brain areas associated with creativity in improvisers during improvisation, the investigators found a correlation between improvisation experience with functional connectivity in the brain areas right and left preSMA, PMD (dorsal premotor cortex) and DLPFC. There appeared to be no correlation between musical complexity in the improvisation performance period and Imphours.
Pinho and colleagues concluded that more experienced improvisers demonstrated overall lower brain activity in the higher frontoexecutive areas, but there was higher functional connectivity between the prefrontal, premotor and motor regions of the frontal lobe. This effect was independent of age, classical piano experience or musical output complexity.

This research is interesting because of its implication for memory improvement and brain stimulation. The expectation regarding cognitive skills is that improvisation since creative uses previously gained knowledge and skills and processing capability and hence the level of activity is high in brain areas associated with executive functions. Pinho and colleagues found that the more experience the pianist had of improvisation then the lower the brain activity in particular brain areas, but there was higher inter-area activity. The effect was determined to be age dependent (likely piano-playing experience dependent), but was not related to the complexity of the musical piece created. Regarding memory theories, it can be assumed that improvisation relies on the pianist knowing what musical combinations work and what does not. Therefore, learnt memories of musical arrangements are recalled (recall without processing) and these spur on the recall of memories of other pieces, phrases, notes etc (also recall without processing) so that the musical improvised piece is created in its entirety. The recall mechanism relies on sequences and speed so it is likely that the improviser begins by consciously thinking over the notes and pieces he is playing and appreciates the association with other pieces he will play. He is then likely to switch into automated mode as the piece progresses letting each piece associate and spur on itself and he himself becomes an ´observer` to the construction and a player only by physically producing the notes.
From a brain memory perspective we can look at three situations where novel combinations of recalled memory units are required to achieve a goal. They are: musical improvisation, brain storming and problem solving. All require higher frontal area involvement and the situations rely on memory, experience, processing ability, and emotional strength to lead to new combinations of old material/familiar material. The question is, is it possible therefore, that training (or comprehensive experience of this type of activity) can make this process more automatic and expertise at performing in these situations can be demonstrated? In the case of improvisation, the experienced improviser can combine learnt and familiar musical phrases to make new music. The experienced improviser is probably older with age meaning probably more exposure, has more confidence, more awareness of what combinations will work and knows what to do when something does not work. In this way, it is possible that training and experience makes improvisation more automatic – the pianist knows instinctively what will work, what will sound terrible, or does not meet the musical constraints.
The same explanation can be applied to the other two situations, brain storming and problem solving. There is a level of automaticity/expertise exhibited once the goal is known with the application of recalled memories, processing using favourite learnt methods (the subject probably has favourite methods and prefers to use these known ones to ones less often used); plus the ability to get relevant information quickly (real-time, using attention pathways, visual pathways, or from past experiences using memory associations, categories and schemes); plus processing capability (working memory, PISCO, attention, language for example); plus ability to see errors (cingulate cortex activity); plus confidence (leap of faith) to perform under pressure, novel situation; plus ability to change direction successfully if the path on appears not to be approaching the goal..
However, full automaticity and expertise may not be possible, since there is nearly always an unknown or unfamiliar element to the improvising, brain storming, problem solving task. In addition, there is almost never a 100% perfect solution or outcome and the subject has to overcome fear and/or lack of confidence, ignore evident errors and inconsistencies, accept that there might have to be a change in thinking or processing tack and might need to seek out and learn new material. The cognitive demands placed on the musical improviser (brain stormer or problem-solver) means multiple brain area functioning relating to the cognitive functions is required eg. memories (cortex, cerebellum, SMA), working memory (prefrontal cortex), attention (parieto-frontal area, latereoinfereoparietal area, pulvinar nuclei of thalamus, dorsolateral parietal cortex, prefrontal cortex), error monitoring (prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, amygdala), emotional system (prefrontal cortex, amygdala, striatal cortex), and auditory sensory system (auditory cortex). This supports Pinho and colleagues observation of higher functionality in experienced improvisers.
The research indicates that contrary to what is intuitively thought that creative cognitive reasoning tasks such as improvising, brain storming and problem solving are more advantageous in brain stimulation when they have an element of surprise or novelty that comes from an external source and requires that the subject has to learn new material. This point perhaps should be borne in mind when mind-games with the specific intention of improving cognitive skills are designed.

Since we`re chatting about the topic…………..

……can we assume that anything that disrupts attention can lead to a negative change in improvisation performance.

…..if the improviser is tired and required to learn new material before the test session, is it likely that the complexity of the performed piece would suffer?

…..if brain waves were measured then there would be alpha waves for the experienced improviser if no new material is added and beta if newly learnt material is included.

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