Ted Talk on improvisation and the brain

Below is a TED TALK by DR CHARLES LIMB, researcher and musician, discussing the effects of improvisation on the brain.

Limb’s general thesis for the talk as well as his research is that artistic creativity is a neurologic product that can be examined using rigorous scientific methods.

For his experiments, he uses fMRI to map Blood Oxygen Level Dependent (BOLD) Imaging, giving him a look at changes in brain activity. Although Limb locks his sights on more music-specific subjects – testing both improvisation jazz and hip hop freestyle… we improvisers can quickly see how many of the theories can be applied to theatrical improvisation as well.

Using pre-established memorized pieces as a control, during the improvisations Limb and his colleagues saw a deactivation of the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain associated with self-monitoring. He also found large stimulation in the medial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with self-expression. Limb’s general hypothesis is that to fully engage creativity, your brain needs to disassociate with identity and consciousness, thereby stripping away inhibition, opening up the gates for unhindered expression.

“Don’t Think” indeed. These findings and initial theories sound eerily similar to countless late night conversations I’ve had with JOE BILL.

During exchanges between multiple musicians (‘trading fours’ in jazz), Limb also found a marked activation of the Broca’s area in the left inferior frontal gyrus, the language center of the brain. He postulates with further research, the adage of music being a language itself could very much hold true.

It makes me wonder about the brain activity going on in improvised musicals or during shows like The Beatbox. Shows where his research and our little hobby intersect. Watching those folks perform on stage, I am consistently in awe of what I’m witnessing, and soon science may be putting similar fascinations in the spotlight.

Limb goes on to ask some big questions on science’s ability, place and future in mapping creativity. I’m interested to see where this research is at several years down the road. Until then, enjoy the video.


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