What jazz improvisation can teach us about creativity and breaking the rules

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Fingers brush a keyboard, ready to play. A trumpet rises to the lips. Wands perch in the air, ready to drop. improv begins, and this combo of jazz musicians instantly creates a piece of music that has never been heard before.

As each instrument twists the melody, the song is reinvented in ways not even the musician understands.

Revered jazz trumpeter Miles Davis put it this way: “I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.”

For neuroscientist Dr Charles Limbjazz is pure creativity in action.

“If I had to define creativity, it would be the generation of something new,” Limb told CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, in a recent episode of his Chasing Life podcast.

Yet “improvisation is not random. It is not the same as simply generating randomness as a form of novelty. It’s actually purposeful, intentional and also very individualized – a jazzman’s solo is kind of his unique musical voice,” said Limb, who is a professor of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery – and head of the division of otology, neurotology and base of the skull. surgery at the University of California, San Francisco.

In an earlier interview in 2018, Lamb explained how he started his research:

“When you hear great jazz, like John Coltrane or Miles Davis, it has this jaw-dropping quality, and what’s been described as a ‘surprise sound’ happens,” Limb said. “And you think to yourself, ‘Wow, this isn’t just phenomenal music, this is phenomenal neurobiology.'”

Could jazz is improvisation a key to understanding how the brain invents? Could this creativity be studied? An accomplished jazz musician himself, Limb was the ideal scientist to tackle the project.

“I’ve always intuitively understood that the creative process in jazz improvisation is very different from the process of memorization,” he explained. “It shows immediately when you play.”

He decided to have jazz musicians play a memorized song while their brains were scanned inside a functional MRI, then have them riff a bit during the scan to compare the differences.

“You say ‘go’, and jazz players can improvise at drop of a hat, so experimentally it’s really easy to study, compared to, say, a novelist,” Limb said. “Just imagine I want you to write a novel on the spot, and every 60 seconds I’m going to have you switch modes between something original and something you’ve memorized. it’s shocking and not how novelists normally operate.

Jazz musicians work this way, but there was one major problem: the MRI’s magnetic field. The pull is so powerful that any metal in the part would be propelled into the heart of the machine, destroying the object in the process.

Solve the problem. Limb ordered a non-magnetic piano with plastic keys, which could be played on the musician’s lap in the scanner. The work has begun, and the results, published in 2008were fascinating.

As the musicians improvised, the parts of the brain that allow humans to express themselves – the medial prefrontal cortex or “default network” – became more active.

At the same time, the part of the brain responsible for self-inhibition and control, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, became inactive.

By inhibiting the part of the brain that allows for self-criticism, musicians were able to stay in their creative flow, known as “in the zone”.

“I consider this a neurological description of letting go,” Limb said. “If you are too self-aware, it is very difficult to be creatively free.”

Not just jazz

It’s not just all that jazz. Limb has also brain-scanned rap artists as they freestyle.

“If you look at the history of jazz and rap, you can argue that rap is today’s jazz,” he said. “Jazz was a radical art form that originated in the United States, and rap has a lot of parallels to jazz, because a lot of it is created locally and is sort of street music.”

Before long, Limb was also looking inside the noggins of improv comedians and cartoon artists.

“In 30 seconds, this artist can sketch any face he sees as a caricature,” he said, adding that improv comedians work the same way. “I realized it was analogous to what happens in a jazz freestyle solo. The brain takes a known structure and deviates from it in ways that are not planned in advance.

“Jazz is a great model to start with, but I don’t want to stop there,” Limb continued. “If you look at the artists and creative experts of our time and think you can learn how human creativity works by looking at art, you realize that each type of art represents a unique piece of human thought.”

Over the past decade, the field of improvised neuroscience has exploded. The researchers peered inside the brains of classical musicians, non-musicians, writers and “divergent” thinkers, those who can quickly find new ways to use everyday objects, like a brick.

One of the first myths to be debunked: “Right-brained people” aren’t more creative. In fact, the networks on the left and right sides of the brain are intimately involved in creativity and change depending on the type of effort and the stage of the creative process.

“We are looking at the networks of creative brain function, the interaction of these networks, and the role of ability,” said Rex Jung, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico who studies aptitude, intelligence and creativity. “Everyone is creative; it is only a matter of degree. We have this prototypical idea of ​​artistic creativity, but we are creative in our relationships, our work, our cooking, or even furnishing our homes in a different way.

For the arts, at least, successful creative improvisation also seems to be tied to expertise, a mastery generated by a lot of hard work. Research finds that musicians who have put in hundreds or even thousands of hours in practice seem to fit “in the flow” more easily.

“What the trained experts who are so creative always reveal is that it was practice – a lot of effort and practice – that gave them the creative edge,” Limb said, “rather than genius. , the talent or aptitude with which they were born.

“So one of the takeaways is that if you want to build a more creative society, there’s no substitute for just trying and doing it,” he continued. “We see the creative brain evolve over time. It’s not just fixed at birth. By practicing these behaviors, we add to our creative abilities.

Jung agrees: “The more raw material you have, the more time you spend developing a skill set, the easier it is to improvise. It takes expertise to have enough material to rely on to be creative. So find an area that interests you, develop expertise in that area, and then start creating and growing something amazing.

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