Listening to jazz musicians improvise, how the piano player's chords toy with the sax player's runs and the standup bass player's beats, it may seem like their music-making process is simply magic. But research of jazz musicians' brain activity as they improvise is helping shed light on the neuroscience behind creativity, and it turns out creating that magic is not as serendipitous a process as we might think.
“I started looking at jazz musicians playing the blues as a way to understand how the creative brain emerges from a neuroscience perspective,” said Charles Limb, associate professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at John’s Hopkins University.
Limb, a jazz musician and music lover, and his team designed a plastic keyboard that jazz musicians could both play and hear while they were inside an MRI machine. Limb asked the musicians to play a memorized piece of music, then improvise with another musician in the control room. Limb captured images of their brains as they played.
When musicians go to an improvisation, the brain switches, Limb said, and the lateral prefrontal lobes responsible for conscious self monitoring became less engaged. “Musicians were turning off the self-censoring in the brain so they could generate novel ideas without restrictions,” he said. Interestingly, the improvising brain activates many of the same brain centers as language, reinforcing the idea that the back and forth of improvisation between musicians is akin to its own language.
The same principle applies to something like writer's block. “When you're trying so hard to come up with ideas you can’t do it, you can’t force it,” Limb said. “Then at another time, some flip switches and you've got this flow going on, this generation of ideas.” When the stakes are higher and the brain is actively over-thinking something, it can interfere with processes that have become routinized, causing behavior or performance to suffer.