Science Reveals Inner Workings Of Guitar Players’ Brains

The debate surrounding whether musical talent is inherent or learnt has been a contentious one, with proponents on either side often turning to science for clues. While we may not yet have a definitive answer on this age old conundrum, a new report tells us the answer may lie in our brain chemistry.

As reported in Policy Mic, recent studies have produced evidence suggesting how the brains of guitar players actually function differently to everyone else. The research could perhaps reveal the scientific meaning behind a band’s “onstage chemistry”.

According to the report, a 2012 study in Berlin showed that when playing together guitarists actually have the ability to synchronise their brains. When researchers scanned the brains of 12 pairs of guitarists playing the same piece of music, they found the guitarists’ neural networks would synchronise not only during the performance, but even slightly before playing. They were in a way reading each others’ minds.

Furthermore, neural research also suggests this ability to synchronise may stem from a guitar players’ overarching intuition. In another study looking into the neuroscience of improvisation, scientists found that when a guitarist is “in the moment” he or she temporarily deactivates a region of the brain, shifting from conscious to unconscious thought.

That same region, the right temporoparietal junction for those playing at home, is the one that typically deactivates in situations of “goal-directed behaviour” in order to inhibit distraction by irrelevant stimuli (hecklers, streakers etc) that might impair a performance. This is not the case when non-musicians attempt to perform, signalling that a simple brain scan could separate the guitar Gods from the mere mortals.

That’s not to say this neural behaviour is inherent. The brain, as we now know is “plastic”, revising and remodelling itself throughout our lives. In his 2012 book Guitar Zero, renowned neuroscientist Gary Marcus tackles this issue of whether musical skill and talent can be acquired later in life.

Along with documenting his quest to learn the guitar at age 40, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life. Musicians like legendary jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35. Patti Smith, recalls Marcus, didn’t consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties and New Orleans legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 and won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48.

All things considered, according to Policy Mic‘s Jordan Taylor Sloan, it’s important to note that for musicians, guitar playing, whether learnt or not, is about more than just brain chemistry. “It’s a way of being.”

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