It’s no surprise that improvisation is seen as a kind of holy grail for creativity. Whether it’s comedians or musicians, the act of creating something novel and interesting out of next to nothing is, indeed, quite remarkable. But what exactly is going on inside an improvising brain?
Most importantly, how can everyday people tap into that kind of creativity?
Your brain on improvisation
Dr. Charles Limb is chief of otolaryngology, neurotology, and skull base surgery—and he’s also a jazz saxophonist.
One of the key tenets of jazz is improvisation. So Limb became curious: What do the brains of jazz musicians look like as they create their art on the fly? Using an fMRI machine, Limb found that activity in the medial prefrontal cortex shot up, while activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex plummeted.
In short, the area of the brain responsible for self-monitoring shut off, and the source of self-expression lit up.
What that basically boils down to is you’re less inhibited when you’re improvising.
So when you are doing something that is a very complex memorized task and your whole focus is on getting it right, I think a whole different set of brain mechanisms kind of come into play that worse are mediated by the prefrontal cortex, which is this kind of effortful planning and conscious self evaluation of the accuracy or appropriateness of your output. And so constantly, your brain is checking itself like, Was that right? Was that right? Am I doing this right? Am I doing that right? And there’s a sort of like template that you’re trying to adhere to this ideal template and then a comparison with what’s actually going on versus that template. That process has its very own distinct neural signature. Then when you switch, when you start improvising—at least on the basis of some of the science experiments we’ve done—most of the very high-level players, I’m talking about professional musicians, we see a generalized shutdown of a lot of these conscious, self-monitoring areas when they started improvising.
Once your inhibitions are down, you’ve opened a channel in your brain to develop new trains of thoughts to tackle a creative problem. But that doesn’t mean you have to play an instrument to benefit from improvisation, as Limb explains:
If I told you to memorize this speech and give me that speech perfectly versus just having a conversation, I think you’ll see right away, Oh that’s a different activity. And giving the speech all of a sudden, even though you know how to talk, there are all these rules in the way. That’s very different than saying, you know what, I’m going to forget about the speech and I’m just going to speak. When have you ever had a scripted conversation? Unless you’re an actor, it just doesn’t happen. So what you have in conversation is a spontaneously generated interaction. All of us have experience in everyday life. Driving home from work, you’re improvising your way home. There are a lot of everyday forms of so-called creativity that take place where you’re doing situational, contextual problem-solving to basically get you through your day.
Everyday improvisation is about being cognizant of those small moments when you’re dealing with something unplanned or unscripted. Navigating your way to work and having conversations are things you do naturally. But once you frame them within the context of improvisation, it may be easier to build on and leverage that kind of creativity, not unlike how musicians get better at improvising during a set the more times they do it.
Because even something small could spark major creativity.
Listen to this full episode of Creative Conversation for pointers on getting over your inhibitions and how to navigate the grey area of improvisation when you’re, well, bad at it: