Guitarists Can Sync Their Brains With Other Players, Forming A Giant Hyperbrain

Charlie Sorrel

The neuroscience of jamming is a giant mind meld.

Guitarists perform a kind of mind-meld when they play together, syncing their brainwaves to the extent that they can anticipate each other’s moves. They also switch off the outside world while playing, leaving them in a tiny universe of them and their music.

A study by researchers Johanna Sänger, Viktor Müller, and Ulman Lindenberger used guitarists to investigate joint action, or "tasks that require the close alignment (coordination) of one's own and the other's action in real time." Tasks like playing in a band or in a duet.

By measuring the brain activity of the players while they performed together, the study found that their brainwaves locked in sync. To preclude the possibility that just playing the same music would induce the same brain patterns in both players, the study used songs with two parts. Further, a leader and follower were assigned, one setting time and the other following.

The result is what the researchers call a "hyperbrain," the combined minds of the two guitarists. Information seems to flow from one part to the other as if it really was one giant brain. Musicians will recognize this feeling, where you know exactly what the other player will do next, even when you’re jamming, aka making it up as you go along.

Interestingly, the study also showed that the individual players’ brains showed "phase locking." That is, the brain activity synchronizes with outside stimulus.

Another study, mentioned by the TrueFire blog, found that musicians shut off their right temporoparietal junction while playing. This part of the brain is "typically deactivated in situations of goal-directed behavior to inhibit distraction by irrelevant stimuli that might impair performance."

That is, like a sportsperson, an improvising musician goes into the zone, switching off to outside distractions. Even when playing alone, musicians can enter a kind of meditation state where time falls away and there’s nothing but the music." Maybe this is why musicians are so relaxed or why non-drug-addicted jazz players all live so long.

Sänger, Müller, and Lindenberger don’t speculate on the causes or purpose of the almost telepathic connection between performing musicians, but Charles Limb, a musician and researcher, summed it up a year earlier, speaking on a 2011 panel at the Dana Foundation:

"Humans are hardwired to seek art, and there are very few things that engage the brain on the level that music does. To understand the neural basis of creativity teaches us something fundamental about who we are, why we’re here."