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Creativity and the Brain: What We Can Learn From Jazz


Musicians
Katrina
Schwartz

Listening to jazz musicians improvise, how the piano players chords toy with the sax players runs and the standup
bass players 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
Johns 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.

When youre trying so hard to come up with ideas you cant do it, you cant force it.

The same principle applies to something like writers block. When youre trying so hard to come up with ideas you
cant do it, you cant force it, Limb said. Then at another time, some flip switches and youve 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.

CREATIVITY CAN BE DEVELOPED

Luckily, creativity isnt an unknowable, mystical quality. It can be developed. You have to cultivate these behaviors by
introducing them to children and recognizing that the more you do it, the better you are at doing it, Limb said. The
problem is a lot of kids dont get much unstructured time either in school or out of it. School is often based on right or
wrong answers, leaving little room for students to come up with ideas that havent been taught to them before.

It doesnt have to be so directed all the time, Limb said. Weve taken a lot of the joy out of things that used to be
joyful. Even a lot of music lessons have become about the discipline of learning to play well, not the joy of creating
the music. Children should have part of every lesson reserved for improvisation and free form play, Limb said. The
same could be said for free play on the playground and experimentation with new ideas in the classroom.
Unprogrammed time is necessary for students to practice using their creativity.

Can Any School Foster Pure Creativity?

Is It Possible to Measure Creativity?

Are We Wringing the Creativity Out of Kids?

In recent years many schools have cut their art programs as non-essential subjects. At the same time,
leaders are crying for more creative thinking in students. We tend to look at education of creative
aspects of children as something that happens incidentally and that is entertainment-based, Limb
said. But that misses the connection between creativity and the idea generation necessary for strong
problem solving skills. Art may be one of the best ways to train the brain to have this kind of creative
fluency, Limb said. He believes art is as central to education as math and reading, especially when
created in collaborative environments like band or orchestra.

Limb is working to set up an experiment testing his theory with kids who have never had drawing or
music lessons before. Hed like to see whats going on in their brains when first allowed to improvise.
Capturing the brain as it begins to create could help deepen an understanding of how to support
creative growth.

Creativity may even be hardwired into human brains, an essential feature that has allowed the species to adapt
repeatedly over the course of history. Very early on theres this need for the brain to be able to come up with
something that it didnt know before, thats not being taught to it, but to find a way to figure something out thats
creative, Limb said. Thats always been essential for human survival.

Creating is core to the human experience throughout time, Limb says. The brain has been hard wired to seek
creative or artistic endeavors forever, he said. We dont need it to survive, you wouldnt think, and yet the brain
wants it and seeks it.

Interestingly, the creating brain looks a lot like the dreaming brain, one of the most creative states humans can enter,
but one associated with unconsciousness. Similar to what Limb observed in jazz musicians, when people dream the
self-monitoring part of the brain is suppressed and the default network in the brain takes over. This is the introspective
part of the brain, as well as the autobiographical part. Thats why dreams feel so personal, pulling from experiences
or recent worries. The brain is an organ and some of its functions are geared toward generation of unpredictable
ideas, Limb said. Thats just how its meant to function.

Listen to a Science Friday interview with Charles Limb for even more about his interesting research.

Explore: Big Ideas, creativity


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