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Improvising and the Brain

A fascinating article in Scientific American magazine interviews hearing specialist and sax player Charles J. Limb, who says that his studies of the brain of musicians during improvisation may provide new understanding of creativity

The article explains, “Limb and National Institutes of Health neurologist Allen R. Braun have developed a method for studying the brains of highly skilled jazz musicians while they are creating music.

“Subjects play on a nonmagnetic keyboard as they lie in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine that takes pictures of their brain. Then the scientists compare neural activity during improvisation with what happens when playing a memorized piece.”

Limb comments on why improvisation is an ideal activity for studying creativity: “There are a lot of forms of creativity. For scientific study, what you really need is the behavior that is a prototypical creative act, realizing that it doesn’t represent all creative behavior.

“Writing a novel is a creative act, but it’s hard to do that in an fMRI scanner, and something that takes a year or so to do is hard to study. Musical improvisation is spontaneous. The timescale is relatively concise, meaning that every time you do it, you can constrain it to a time frame quite reasonably and expect artistically relevant results.”

He admits this methodology, fMRI, “is a very, very inferential method. It is completely imprecise on so many levels, and at best you are inferring a pattern of activity that is associated with a pattern of behavior.”

What is the brain doing?

Limb says his studies have revealed that “creativity is a whole-brain activity. When you’re doing something that’s creative, you’re engaging all aspects of your brain. During improvisation, the prefrontal cortex of the brain undergoes an interesting shift in activity, in which a broad area called the lateral prefrontal region shuts down, essentially so you have a significant inhibition of your prefrontal cortex.

“These areas are involved in conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of actions you’re about to implement.

“In the meantime, we saw another area of the prefrontal cortex—the medial prefrontal cortex—turn on. This is the focal area of the brain that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative. It’s part of what is known as a default network. It has to do with sense of self.”

Source: Inner Spark: Using Music to Study Creativity, By Alicia Anstead, Scientific American magazine, May 2011.

Actors and improvisation

Actor Alison Lohman has admitted, “I had straight A’s throughout high school and I got a C in drama. I hated it because I was so quiet and shy. We had all these improvisation exercises I just couldn’t do.” [Variety, Mar. 3, 2003]

Maybe shyness involves the prefrontal cortex – so too much self-monitoring, self-inhibition, etc that Limb mentioned, inhibits acting performance.

Related book by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

Improvising and the Brain

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2011). Improvising and the Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 May 2011
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