Peter Durand

The Neuroscience of Improvisation

In Health, Journal, Science, TED, video on January 6, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I have always wanted to have my brain scanned while listening and scribing. One limitation is that I’d have to lay immobilized on my back in a giant beige magnet.

On a vacation a few years ago, I described what I do for a living to family friend who is a neuropathologist.

When I asked him what happens in my brain while I listen and draw images to capture ideas on large surfaces, he replied: “Why, your whole brain is lit up like a Christmas tree!”

Charles Limb is a doctor and a musician who researches the way musical creativity works in the brain.

He wondered how the brain works during musical improvisation — so he put jazz musicians and rappers in an fMRI to find out. What he and his team found has deep implications for our understanding of creativity of all kinds.

The working hypothisis is that, in order to be creative, a person has to have a “weird dissociation in the frontal lobe”

For creativity to work, one area of the brain has to turn on, and a large area needs to turn off, so that the artist is uninhibited and willing to make mistakes.

The prefrontal cortex is a brain region important in planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior.

In order to accomplish tasks and make decisions–otherwise known as executive functions–we tend to filter out new generative impulses that are incongruent or interfering with the focus of our activity or thinking.

Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially-unacceptable outcomes).

This is most likely why graphic facilitation, scribing and mind mapping (as well as jazz and improv) are such effective tools in innovation. All of these modes of thinking and performing require the recognition of key patterns, the generation and recombination of new information and seemingly unrelated content, into an experience that is beautiful, funny, or unique.

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