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The Brain That Gave Us 'Purple Haze'

A psychologist argues the enormous creativity of guitarist Jimi Hendrix can be traced to the high level of integration between his brain’s two hemispheres.
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The late guitarist Jimi Hendrix is an icon of the 1960s counterculture, an energetic emblem of creative rebelliousness. A newly published paper suggests he also represents something else entirely: the imaginative power that is unleashed when the two hemispheres of the brain work together.

Writing in the journal Laterality, University of Toledo psychologist Stephen Christman notes that Hendrix was “mixed-handed:” He wrote and ate with his right hand, but combed his hair and played the guitar with his left. Several previous studies — including one we reported on last fall — have associated this trait with creativity, apparently because it indicates unusually strong interaction between the brain’s right and left hemispheres.

If Christman’s analysis is correct, Hendrix is a vivid example of this phenomenon. The groundbreaking musician’s ability to utilize both sides of his brain “enabled him to integrate the actions of his left and right hands while playing guitar, to integrate the lyrics and melodies of his songs, and perhaps even to integrate the older blues and R&B tradition with the emerging folk, rock and psychedelic sounds of the ’60s,” he writes.

Christman’s previous research found mixed-handedness is not uncommon among string players, who must tightly synchronize the actions of their two hands while performing. He writes that in Hendrix’s case, this trait allowed the guitarist to simultaneously use “his right hand to fret the strings, and his left hand to pluck the strings and manipulate the pickup selector and tone, volume and tremolo (i.e. ‘whammy bar’) controls on the body of his instruments.”

In this way, Hendrix managed to “generate otherworldly howls, shrieks and siren-like sounds on the guitar,” most famously on his irreverent rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner recorded at the Woodstock Festival.

Christman notes that language and rhythm processing tends to be focused on the left side of the brain, while the processing of melody and harmony largely takes place on the right side.” This suggests to him that “mixed-handers may have an advantage in integrating the lyrics and melody in songwriting,” in that they may be “better able to put the ‘right’ words with the ‘right’ melody.”

“It may be no coincidence that All Along the Watchtower, the hit single from [Hendrix’s album] Electric Ladyland, was written by Bob Dylan, another mix-handed songwriter,” he writes.

“Mixed-handedness is also associated with an increased tolerance of ambiguity, which characterizes much of the lyrical and musical content of Electric Ladyland,” Christman adds. He cites among examples of ambiguity in Hendrix’s lyrics that include a reference to floating “in liquid gardens way down in Arizona Red Sand,” which in fairness could also be viewed as evidence of heavy pharmaceutical usage.

Christman’s analysis is, necessarily, speculative, since Hendrix’s life ended before the era of sophisticated brain scans. But he gets support for his stance from another world-class musician: Classical violinist Nigel Kennedy, who recorded a CD of Hendrix tunes in the 1990s. He quotes Kennedy as saying: “I think that’s what’s interesting about Hendrix — the lateral consciousness that he has. I think integration in music is really what makes originality.”

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