“You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”
George Bernard Shaw
Pretend that you’re a budding jazz guitar player. You’ve been practicing for a year or two so you’re beginning to have an idea of how it’s done and what you need to do to get better. You live in Chicago and head up to the Green Mill on Tuesday night to see jazz guitar legend Bobby Broom play with his Deep Blue Organ Trio, or maybe you catch him with his trio. The club is dark and the tattooed guy in the leather vest taking money at the door tells you in no uncertain terms that there is to be NO talking while the music is playing. You find a seat in the dim interior, up close to the bandstand and Bobby walks on stage with Chris Foreman and Greg Rockingham. They start to play.
Did I mention that you have a portable fMRI attached to yourself? An fMRI is a device that can map very precisely what is happening in your brain. It shows where the blood is flowing when you think or do stuff. Scientists use it for all kinds of things and the device is helping us discover all sorts of things about the brain and how it works. It’s used for Alzheimers patients, and schizophrenic patients, and is also used in experiments on musicians. Thing is, an fMRI weighs several tons and your whole body slides into it while it records the activity in your brain. Oh, and it will cost you up to 3 million to build one, or a measly $2,300 for a few session. Thank goodness for imagination. Nobody can see the fMRI you’re hooked up to and it’ll cost you nothing.
They launch into In Walked Bud, a tune you learned a while ago. While you’re watching this fantastic music, your brain is firing the same neurons necessary to play what you’re seeing and hearing! In essence, your brain is doing the same thing Bobby is up on stage, or very close to it. Scientists have discovered what is called the mirror neuron mechanism in the brain. It’s one of the ways that primates, especially us humans, learn how to do things by watching.
When you go see and hear live music, it’s much more motivating and inspirational than simply listening to a recording. I’ve always found live music to be more real and it seems more achievable than simply listening to a recording. To actually see a live human being producing sounds out of an instrument is a powerful example. It seems reasonable to assume that perhaps part of the reason I feel this way is that when I watch other musicians perform, my brain is firing in a very similar way to the brains of the musicians on stage. I’m oversimplifying this quite a bit, but the essence is there. This is just another great reason to go hear live music!
Here are some superb explanations from scientists who discovered and explore the mirror neuron system:
If you’re interested in this phenomena, here are a couple articles to help fill in the gaps:
Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169-192.
Kohler, E., Keysers, C., Umiltà, M. A., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G. (2002). Hearing sounds, understanding actions: Action representation in mirror neurons. Science, 297, 846-848.