The Vanderbilt University psychologists have found that professionally trained musicians more effectively use a creative technique called divergent thinking, and use both the left and the right sides of their frontal cortex more heavily than the average person.
"We were interested in how individuals who are naturally creative look at problems that are best solved by thinking 'out of the box'," said Bradley Folley.
"We studied musicians because creative thinking is part of their daily experience, and we found that there were qualitative differences in the types of answers they gave to problems and in their associated brain activity," Folley added.
The researchers believe that musicians' ability to use both brain hemispheres might be tied to their use of both hands independently to play their instruments.
"Musicians may be particularly good at efficiently accessing and integrating competing information from both hemispheres," Folley said.
"Instrumental musicians often integrate different melodic lines with both hands into a single musical piece, and they have to be very good at simultaneously reading the musical symbols, which are like left-hemisphere-based language, and integrating the written music with their own interpretation, which has been linked to the right hemisphere."
For the study, research team including Crystal Gibson, Bradley Folley and Sohee Park recruited 20 classical music students from the Vanderbilt Blair School of Music and 20 non-musicians from a Vanderbilt introductory psychology course.
The musicians each had at least eight years of training. The instruments they played included the piano, woodwind, string and percussion instruments.
The researchers conducted two experiments to compare the creative thinking processes of the musicians and the control subjects. In the first experiment, the researchers showed the research subjects a variety of household objects and asked them to make up new functions for them, and also gave them a written word association test.
The musicians gave more correct responses than non-musicians on the word association test, which the researchers believe may be attributed to enhanced verbal ability among musicians. The musicians also suggested more novel uses for the household objects than their non-musical counterparts.
In the second experiment, the two groups again were asked to identify new uses for everyday objects as well as to perform a basic control task while the activity in their prefrontal lobes was monitored using a brain scanning technique called near-infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS. NIRS measures changes in blood oxygenation in the cortex while an individual is performing a cognitive task.
"When we measured subjects' prefrontal cortical activity while completing the alternate uses task, we found that trained musicians had greater activity in both sides of their frontal lobes," Folley said.
The researchers found that overall the musicians had higher IQ scores than the non-musicians.
The study appears in the journal Brain and Cognition.