[JPL] What the Jazz Greats Knew About Creativity

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Sun Mar 25 23:01:48 EDT 2012

Brilliant: The Science of Smart
What the Jazz Greats Knew About Creativity
Learning how to break down inhibitions and prime your senses leads to 
more creative thinking
By Annie Murphy Paul | @anniemurphypaul | March 21, 2012

The improvisational flights of jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and John 
Coltrane are so transporting that they can seem almost otherworldly --- 
especially when the listener is aware that these musicians weren't 
following any score, but were making up their riffs in the moment. New 
research on what happens in the brain when we improvise, however, is 
showing that it is very much an earthbound activity, grounded in the 
same neural processes at play in every one of us when we engage in 
spontaneous self-expression, like a conversation with a friend.

"Creativity is far from a magical event of unexpected random 
inspiration," wrote researchers Charles Limb and Mónica López-González 
in an article published in the journal Cerebrum last month. "Instead, it 
is a mental occurrence that results from the application of ordinary 
cognitive processes." Many students and employees are discovering this 
for themselves as the techniques of musical and dramatic improvisation 
move into educational and workplace settings, where they're used to 
boost the creativity of people who've never picked up a saxophone in 
their lives.

Limb, an associate professor otolaryngology at the Johns Hopkins School 
of Medicine who is also on the faculty of the university's Peabody 
Conservatory of Music, conducted one of the earliest brain-scan studies 
of musical improvisation in 2008. In that study, published in the 
journal PLoS ONE, Limb and his co-author Allen Braun persuaded six 
professional jazz pianists to play on a specially designed keyboard 
while lying inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) 
machine. The musicians played a tune they had memorized and then a tune 
they invented on the spot.

With the shift to improvisation, the researchers noted the appearance of 
a distinctive pattern of brain activity. The dorsolateral prefrontal 
cortex, a region associated with careful planning and self-censorship, 
became dormant, while parts of the brain connected to the senses --- 
hearing, seeing, feeling --- became especially lively. Most interesting, 
a brain area called the medial prefrontal cortex, linked to 
autobiographical storytelling, also showed increased activity. 
Inhibitions released and senses primed, these musicians were engaged in 
an act of self-expression, using the music to communicate something deep 
about themselves.

We don't have to be professional pianists to reap the benefits of 
improvisation, as a study published in the journal Psychology of Music 
in 2008 shows. In this experiment, 6-year-olds were divided into two 
groups: one group received music lessons enriched with improvisatory 
activities involving their voices, their bodies and musical instruments, 
while the other attended classes that were "didactic and 
teacher-centered." A measure of creative thinking in music was 
administered to both groups before and after the six-month series of 
lessons. The results: children who'd engaged in improvisation showed 
significant increases in the creativity of their thinking and the 
originality of their music, while pupils who attended the conventional 
classes did not.

Improvisation can also bring fresh thinking into the workplace. The 
Second City, the famous improv-comedy troupe in Chicago, now has a 
corporate arm devoted to improving business communication skills through 
the same techniques its actors use to make people laugh. "Business isn't 
neatly scripted," notes Tom Yorton, chief executive officer of the 
Second City Communications. "It's an unpredictable and unwieldy act of 
improvisation." The organization's trainers lead groups of coworkers, or 
"ensembles," through exercises designed to break down inhibitions, 
heighten attention and ease self-expression --- valuable aims, research 
suggests, for anyone who wants to come up with a riff the world hasn't 
heard before.


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