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Water Cooler: Brain activity during improvisation

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 9, 2020

Wynton Marsalis performs during the Ellis Marsalis Family Tribute at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 28, 2019.  (Associated Press)
Wynton Marsalis performs during the Ellis Marsalis Family Tribute at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 28, 2019. (Associated Press)

In his book, “Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life,” trumpeter, composer and educator Wynton Marsalis wrote, “Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what’s inside comes out pure. It’s like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight.”

Improvisation has always had a mysterious air. Musicians have described it as an otherworldly experience. It is astounding to watch a musician break out into minutes of solo improvisation, as if they are guided by some intuitive force. Improvisation can strike us as spiritual, poetic and inspired. Many comedians have been praised for the genius of their comedic improvisation, spontaneously and perfectly striking a humorous chord with the audience. Science seems to prove Marsalis’ conjecture right – improvisation is a lot less about prepared and cognizant thought and much more about acting without controlling or monitoring ourselves.

It may seem counterintuitive that the finesse and skill exhibited in a musical solo could be mentally effortless to produce. You would think that a jazz musician’s brain is turning a million miles a minute, figuring out each new direction and flourish for the solo, but instead most of it quiets down.

In 2008, Charles J. Limb and Allen R. Braun released a study called “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation” which examined the brains of six professional jazz musicians using functional MRI while they played scales, then compared it to brain activity while they improvised. Yes, these musicians actually had to play while lying down in the tube of the MRI machine.

While playing scales and other well-learned musical sequences, the musicians showed activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is largely responsible for monitoring and correcting behavior. This includes the lateral orbitofrontal cortex which anticipates choices and previous and incoming information, for instance, allowing a musician to judge the audience’s reaction and assess mistakes. Just above that region is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is active when people are monitoring their actions, processing information and problem solving.

When the musicians improvised, both of those regions deactivated. Instead, the medial prefrontal cortex activated. This region, like many others in the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for decision-making and memory retrieval, but many researchers believe this region specifically encourages idea generation and fosters creativity. Although it seems one would want to continue to monitor their behavior while performing in front of an audience, the researchers suggested that these changes in prefrontal activity allowed musicians to act with spontaneous expression without getting caught up on criticizing their performance as harshly. This points to improvisation as something that can happen outside of conscious awareness, facilitated by shifts in cognitive function.

A similar study done by neuroscientists at the U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2012 found that these patterns of brain activity hold true for freestyle rappers. It again used imaging from an fMRI machine to compare the brain activity of 12 rappers while they recited a set of memorized lyrics to the activity while they freestyled.

This relaxing of the brain’s executive functions during improvisation seems to allow people to enter what psychologists call a flow state. This state was named by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975. He identified 10 factors involved in this total immersion state, such as complete focus on the activity, feelings of personal control and serenity, lack of awareness of physical needs and timelessness.

Of course, the impressive improvisation exhibited by professional musicians requires a certain mastery of skill, but flow state is accessible to everyone. The same patterns of activity seen with improvising musicians can also be seen during REM sleep, which is when we dream. This means “getting in the zone” is seemingly available to all. Pairing that with a honed skill set, however, is what creates improvisation legends.

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