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Ever wonder how that guitarist nailed that solo or how your favorite rapper can roll out so many lyrics while making it look easy? Beside lots of practice, your brain has a few tricks.

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[ intro ].

Have you ever seen a performance that just blew your mind? Like when, mid-song, the guitarist just goes completely nuts and pulls this god-like solo seemingly out of nowhere?

You may think that musicians who are awesome at improvising are just inexplicably gifted. Like they're some supernaturally talented genius. But psychological studies tell us that actually, what really makes for a good improviser isn't some innate genius.

Aside from a whole lot of practice, you need to be able to switch your brain off. Common wisdom may tell you that when someone's improvising up a storm, their brain is probably on fire. Like in their brain they're planning the next section, or figuring out how to plug in this thing they thought of yesterday, or trying not to mess the whole thing up.

But actually, the opposite is true. Some musicians, such as jazz players, often describe improv as this otherworldly experience. The rhythms and notes just burst forth from their instruments way faster than they're capable of processing what they've just done.

It's like it comes from somewhere else, and just flows right through their fingers. It seems pretty counterintuitive that such detailed, finessed improves could be so effortless for some musicians to produce. But research on the brain can show us why this might be the case.

A study published in 2008 using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, looked at the brain activity of six professional jazz musicians — first while they played scales, and then while they improvised simple melodies on a keyboard. This keyboard had to be specially made out of non-magnetic materials, since the magnetic fields used in MRI imaging are really, really strong. Like, things-will-fly-out-of-your-pockets-if-you're-in-the-same-room-as-them strong.

And as if that didn't make this experiment awkward enough, musicians then had to play lying down in the scanner's tight little tube. But somehow, it all worked out. Afterward, researchers analyzed the scans and compared the brain activities during the two tasks.

And they found that while improvising, there were two very distinct changes. First, the medial prefrontal cortex became active. Like other parts of the prefrontal cortex, this area of the brain gets involved in lots of activities, including decision-making and memory retrieval.

And researchers believe that increased activity in this region encourages idea generation. It ramps up creativity and helps soloists come up with new directions to take the music. But that wasn't the only thing going on in the scans.

At the same time, activity in the brain's lateral prefrontal regions had decreased. These regions are responsible for monitoring and correcting your behavior. For example, the might be checking for mistakes and judging how enjoyable the performance is.

Meanwhile, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is especially active when you're monitoring your actions, or putting real effort into problem-solving. But while you're improvising, these parts of your brain basically shut down. At first this might sound kind of weird.

The ability to monitor your behavior seems pretty important when you're on stage in front of a crowd. So why would these areas get quieter when you're jamming out? The researchers suggest that this shutdown may allow musicians to mellow out a little.

They stop monitoring themselves so harshly and just let the music come out of them without being too critical of how it sounds. And it's not just jazz musicians that show these patterns. A similar study looking at brain activity in freestyle rappers showed exactly the same patterns of activity.

It seems like, with their brains in this state, musicians and rappers are able to just trust their instincts, take risks, and go with the flow. And ‘flow', or ‘flow state', is what psychologists call being in the zone. Psychologists who have studied musical improvisation suggest that flow is really important to a good jam session.

Of course, it's not the only thing at play. You have to be able to like, play the instrument before you can improvise. But when you're in a flow state, you lose a sense of yourself, time flies by, and every action you take just seems to follow naturally from the last one.

Like you don't even have to think you just do. In fact, the same patterns of activity we see in improvising musicians also show up during REM sleep— the phase of sleep that lets us dream. That's right!

The same parts of your brain that gave you that one weird dream about boogie-boarding with Kanye are also responsible for boosting your creativity while you're awake. Which kind of makes sense, right? Dreaming is all about strange, unplanned associations and a lack of control.

So it's easy to see why those same traits, produced by those same brain areas, produce that same feeling of otherworldly inspiration that musicians report while they improvise. The skills of improvising soloists are impressive, for sure. But it's probably not just some innate genius that's letting them kill it on stage.

The ability to get in the zone is available to pretty much all of us. And with a little practice, maybe you can quiet down your prefrontal cortex and harness it too. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

If you liked learning about how your brain influences your musicality, you might be interested in this episode about how music also influences your brain… no matter how musical you are! [ outro ].