Dirk Knemeyer

The Digital Life #256: The Neuroscience of Improvisation

On The Digital Life this week, we chat about creativity and the neuroscience of improvisation. Over the past decade, the field of improvisational neuroscience has exploded. Neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb investigated the neural underpinnings of spontaneous musical performance, by examining improvisation in professional jazz pianists using functional MRI. Dr. Limb wanted to know more about the cognitive context enabling the emergence of spontaneous creative activity. Dr. Limb’s research and others like it are fundamental to discovering how human creativity operates. Everyone is creative, it’s just a matter of degree. Join us as we discuss.

Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation

Jazz improv and your brain: The key to creativity?


Jon: Welcome to episode 256 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk: Greetings listeners.

Jon: For our podcast this week, we’re going to talk about creativity and the neuroscience of improvisation. Over the last decade, the field of improvisational neuroscience has really taken off, and neuroscience in general, but in this particular area that we’re interested this week we’re talking specifically about creativity and neuroscience in regards to when human beings are functioning in an improvisational situation. Of course, one of the greatest improvisational art forms is jazz, and I myself have a lot of experience with jazz, just at one point thought perhaps I would be a professional musician in my naïve 20-something self.

Dirk: For a while you were a professional musician.

Jon: For a while, yes. I did sort of cobble together a living playing gigs around Boston. I’d rate that as semi-professional because it was almost possible, but not quite.

Dirk: Okay.

Jon: Nonetheless, I was a working musician for a time and really quite enjoyed that year that I was a working musician. Obviously struggling and making not a ton of money doing it, but nonetheless booking gigs and going to clubs and watching the sun rise many mornings. At any rate, the sort of brain activity around the creation of improvisational music, I think is really interesting. There was a paper called Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance and FMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation that was published in 2008 by …

Dirk: 2008, so this is an older article?

Jon: It is an older article, yes. It has recently resurfaced because of some reporting done by CNN and I’ve seen references to it sort of across the inter-webs in the intervening years. It’s research that has been built on over time, but the initial publication was 10 years ago in 2008. It was done by a neuroscientist, Dr. Charles Limb, who I believe also has a TED Talk on the topic. It looks into the neural substrates that underlie spontaneous musical performance by examining improvisation in professional jazz pianists using the aforementioned functional MRI.
The purpose of this paper was really to set the cognitive context that enables spontaneous creative activity. What is the context in the brain, the neurological underpinnings of improvisation and sort of, how does the mind prepare itself to do this work? If you look at the paper, accompanying that paper there are some really interesting MRI images of these musicians who are playing the piano while their brains are being scanned. In particular, Dr. Limb found that the part of the brain that is responsible for inhibition and control, that part of the brain becomes dormant in this particular context, while the part of the brain that allows us to express ourselves becomes more active. It’s a fairly complex outline that characterizes this improvisational state. If I keep saying that, I’ll be able to pronounce it eventually.

Dirk: It’s a tongue-twister, Jon.

Jon: You know, it makes sense that this control, this inhibition center would be shut down during the state, because you know, you could see how sort of this judgment, sort of critical zone would prohibit you from entering a flow state. Right? That state at which you are spontaneously creating. Dirk, you looked at this as well, looked at this article. What were your initial takeaways on this? I have some follow up ideas, but I want to stop there and come to you for your thoughts.

Dirk: Sure, I mean, it ties into some things that we talk about regularly on the show, I think even on the last show about how we’re really understanding the human animal, the human condition, and human behavior. This is a great example of it. You mentioned already how this research shows parts of the brain that are more active or more de-active, I don’t know if de-active is a word, but you know, when performing in this improvisational way in the specific example of jazz music. It’s just sort of another brick in the road towards our understanding humans not as a black mystical box of wonder, but as an understandable, computationally understandable and perhaps predictable thing and being, which I think is all very interesting.
However, the spin that this article was taking was really about creativity. You know, Dr. Limb talked about a number of different things, and outside of just this article Dr. Limb has also done some more recent research in hip hop and expanded this all out, for example. In talking about creativity, we have a traditional notion of right brain thinking and left brain thinking. That the right brain is the creative side of the brain and the left side of the brain is the analytical side of the brain. A lot of people have made a lot of money writing books, you know, doing frameworks, we even here at the studio, we’ve spent a little time with the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, which is a specific tool developed in the 1970s that is typing people in part based on right brain versus left brain. In the stereotypical, traditional example identifying the right brain as the clinical creative side of the brain.
What this research is exhibiting scientifically is that that’s not how creativity works. Creativity is the product of both “sides” of the brain operating in harmony, operating dynamically, operating together. That’s great because it’s taking us down a path of better understanding ourselves. The work of Ned Herrmann in the 1970s, of other people of trying to capture a snapshot of humans, trying to understand things like creativity, those are useful steps in the road but they’re all trying to see their way through this misty, cloudy reality of guessing, of not really having empirical data, not having good science behind it. Now we’re getting good science on what and how creativity is.
I’m inspired by it. I’m like, then what’s going to be the next framework? What’s a more modern take on trying to understand ourselves in some more holistic way, because tools like the HBDI clearly weren’t there. Yet, the topic of understanding ourselves has never been more important than it is today.

Jon: Yeah so, great point and I want to follow up on that with some comments. Number one, I think we’ve talked about the future of work, sort of ad nauseam throughout the past year. One of the sort of keys to work in the future, especially an AI driven automated future of work is that potentially non-routine creative tasks are going to become important, or more important than they are now. Part of what this research reinforces, and we haven’t really delved into this yet, but that it’s the practice of these improvisational types of creative behavior, it’s the practice and eventual mastery of those that allows these musicians to achieve that flow state.
The key there is that it’s practice, right? It’s not that creativity can be sort of boxed off as something that, that’s what artists do or that’s what musicians do. It’s about the practice of, whatever that creative behavior is sort of again and again and again. What that enables in these FMRI scans is this sort of ability to more quickly achieve that flow state. I think what’s exciting about that is the idea that this creative repetition could have successful output, whether you think you’re a “creative” person or not.
That’s key as well because I think as much as we like to sometimes talk about creativity in an egalitarian way, it’s also, as I mentioned a few months ago, it also feels exclusive or restricted or not for everyone. Really, part of what underlies the findings in this research is that yes, if you practice creativity, this is sort of a state that you can achieve as well. I thought that was an important point, that practicing creativity is something that is possible and something that we can do.

Dirk: Certainly, that ties into some broader cultural means. Right? I mean, for some years now there’s been the notion, I don’t remember who it was, but there was that magical 10,000 hours. You put 10,000 hours into something, and this might not be the exact term that was used, but basically put in 10,000 hours and you’ll be an expert, you’ll be great. It’s down this same path, where they’re saying, look, what we’re learning about creativity is if you just get in and do something and learn about it …

Jon: Exactly.

Dirk: That’s when you start to be able to be creative and improvisational in it. First, you need that knowledge base. It’s the knowledge base that’s important. The 10,000 hours thing, I mean, that’s a sound bite. That’s rubbish. Yeah, for the average person, maybe 10,000 hours is exactly the number. In different context you’re going to get people who are more skilled and who are less skilled and who need more hours, who need less hours. It’s not about that, it’s just about figuring it out for yourself. That might be more, it might be less. Whatever it is, get in and fricking do it.
If you go into a context and you invest yourself in it and you love it and you do it, you’re going to get to the point where improvisation, you know, creativity are coming out of you in ways that you’re doing new, unexpected things that are both extending the medium but are also going back to Dr. Limb’s research, expressive. It’s the expressive part of yourself and you begin to put yourself into the work, into the creativity, into the context in a way that is both furthering the art, furthering the thing, but is imbuing it with your unique sense of self. That’s super interesting.

Jon: Yeah, it is. I mean, what’s wonderful I think about this research into improvisational neuroscience is it’s revealing how human creativity operates. It’s revealing sort of the core functions within our brain that make it possible, which means that as we understand more about it, as you are saying, we can optimize for those states. I’m assuming that we all think that more creativity is a good thing, especially in a world where emerging technologies are changing things so rapidly.
I think the takeaway from that is in part that these are not fixed states. Like, the creative brain is something that evolves over time and that we can enhance our creative abilities over time through practice, and then ultimately that, without calling it retraining or relearning something, this idea that we can expand creative practice in the future so it enables more people to take advantage of a world that is perhaps more automated. That seems like a hopeful, refreshing possibility. That’s me being optimistic maybe, but that’s the conclusion I come away …

Dirk: Very optimistic, yeah. It’s a good sound bite, but I don’t know, I think it’s going to require the regulation of our endocrine system before those things are really realized in any meaningful way. We need our brain chemistry, we need the chemicals in our body to be moderated and optimized for that to be real. I think it’s on that level, it’s not on the pop psychology level that we really can bring out sort of optimal creative function and expression. I think it’s a chemical, biological thing. I think it’s a harder bit, even though that sounds really bad, you know, that doesn’t sound as good an inspiring as, “Let’s just all tap into this in sort of more natural behavioral ways,” I think it’s much more chemical. Maybe that’s a topic for a different show.

Jon: Yeah, we’ll leave it there. We’ll come back to this topic, obviously, around neuroscience and creative output. Yes, more food for thought. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, Sound Cloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play, and if you’d like to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and of course the whole show is brought to you by Go Invo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk?

Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.

Jon: That’s it for episode 256 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.


Tagged on:                         

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *