Friday, December 14, 2012

Improvisation and the Brain

Topical Reference:
"Your Brain on Improv" by Charles Limb (Full Version available on TED)

This video features a talk about musical improvisation and begins by presuming that creativity is a product of the brain and therefore able to be studied scientifically. In this case, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is capable of detecting deoxygenated hemoglobin was employed to examine which areas of the brain increase and decrease in neural activity during spontaneously generated playing vs. over-learned playing. Essentially, musicians were asked to improvise music and then play similar music that was memorized.

First, jazz piano players were tested. Participants played via a midi keyboard that was modified to be able to be played while lying in the fMRI machine. They heard the music through headphones, which included prerecorded accompaniment. Differences in activity were found in multifunctional locations throughout the brain that are associated to introspection, self-reflection and short-term memory. Specifically, areas responsible for self-monitoring shut down during improvisation, while regions responsible for autobiographical thinking and self-expressivity lit up. This was seen by the activation of an area known as the medial prefrontal cortex and deactivation of a broader area called the lateral prefrontal cortex. Limb hypothesized that "to be creative you have to have this weird disassociation in the frontal lobe. One area turns on and a big area shuts off so that you're not inhibited, so that you're willing to make a mistake, so that you're not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses."

He then repeated the test while having participants "trade 4s," which is when 2 jazz musicians improvise solos in response to each other in a musical call and response. Since Limb is a jazz musician himself, he simply played with the participants using a keyboard that was heard through headphones, which facilitated the call and response. The musicians were asked to memorize a melody then alternate between playing the melody and "trading 4s" on cue.

Broca's region, which is implicated in speech, language and expressive communication, was activated while musically responding to another musician during musical improvisation. It was not active during the memorized playing. Limb then states that a possible neurological basis for the idea that music is a language might be implicated by these results.

Finally, he tested freestyle rapping. The same memorized vs. improvised comparison was done. Interestingly, despite the rappers' eyes being closed, the visual areas lit up. At the same time, the cerebellum was activated, which is strange since this area is responsible for motor coordination and the subjects were lying still.


The question of how the brain innovates and generates novel conceptions is fascinating in light of the tremendous creative capacity of human beings. With the strong caveat that this data is from a miniscule data set, what is presented is still remarkable. Oddly, musical improvisation seemed to occur in brain regions that were somewhat surprising.

For example, the activation of visual systems while the eyes are closed is peculiar. During routine electroencephalogram testing, bright lights are flashed at the patients to activate the visual cortex and yet, freestyle rap seems to activate it without the aid of the vision! The motor-control region activation was also interesting. The cerebellum can be associated to conditioned and automated movements, which makes sense in light of the fact that motor-control of the vocal areas may need to be available for quick real time adjustments as verbalizations formulate meanings and vice versa.

The language region known as Broca's area was lit up during instrumental improvisation where the musician was musically interacting and responding to another musician. It should be noted that a homologous region was activated in the right hemisphere. This might imply that linguistic and musical communication coevolved. In any case, it seems that language specialization areas on the left hemisphere of brain may be involved in contextual musical meaning comprehension.

Improvisation and the ability to spontaneously generate ideas are highly related to creativity. The findings revealed in this video seem to shed some light onto what is happening in our brains when we are being creative. Changes in the balance between inhibition and excitation seem to logically explain how improvisers reach moments of peak creativity. Though many new questions are brought up by this research, a stepping-stone to a scientific understanding of creativity seems to be in the making. Personally, I am enthralled to witness neuroscience accepting the challenge of solving the mystery of human ingenuity and our potentially infinite creative capacities. 

1 comment:

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