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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Minding Your Mind Minding Your Mind

The Pleasure of Improvising

July 20, 2012

By Michael Craig Miller M.D.

Harvard Medical School

As an amateur musician, I was pleased to come across an article that brought together two of my favorite topics: music and the brain. Two scientists in Baltimore devised a clever way to discover what happens in the brain when a person improvises.

Improvisation in music involves playing novel melodies, harmonies and rhythms, but staying roughly within the framework of the written music. It blends a high level of skill with spontaneity.

This special blend is not seen only in music. In fact, you don't have to be any kind of artist at all. Improvisation is just as much a part of cooking a stew or tinkering with a motorcycle.

On an everyday level, improvising is the difference between approaching work or play creatively and going through the motions. And it probably makes work and play more fun.

This study also suggests why improvising feels so good. Of course, anyone who has devoted hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice in order to master a skill will feel proud. And nothing beats the self-esteem that comes from playing well — whether you're playing the piano or playing basketball.

But as this study suggests, improvisation may provide a different sort of pleasure. Accomplished musicians and athletes (not to mention anyone who has invested time and energy in learning a trade or profession) cherish a reward of mastery — a state of mind of being in a "zone." It's what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has called "flow." Some people describe this state as one where the performer stops thinking about the performance and simply acts.

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The Biology of Improvising

Dr. Charles Limb and Dr. Allen Braun of the National Institutes of Health conducted the study. Dr. Limb, who is an ear, nose and throat specialist, also plays jazz saxophone and is on the faculty of the Peabody Institute, the music conservatory at The Johns Hopkins University.

Limb and Braun persuaded six professional jazz pianists to play a keyboard while they were inside a brain-scanning MRI machine. The pianists played a C-major scale. The scale is made up of only the white keys on the keyboard and is very simple for a trained pianist to play. The pianists also played a more complex original jazz composition that they had been given to memorize several days earlier.

The authors then asked the pianists to improvise on the scale and the composition. The researchers were particularly interested to see how the patterns of brain activity while playing rehearsed music compared to the patterns that appeared as musicians improvised.

Indeed, the scientists saw a clear difference between the two types of playing.

During improvisation, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which sits in the most forward part of the brain, became very active. Neuroscientists believe that the MPFC pulls together information that people use to achieve complex goals. In particular, these complex goals are the ones we tend to cherish because they are closely tied to our hopes and aspirations.

At the same time, the sides of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) were relatively quiet. This part of the PFC is more active when people are conforming to rules (as opposed to expressing themselves freely). It monitors and inhibits inappropriate behavior. It also tends to become more active (and therefore lights up on MRI scans) during problem solving and conscious planning.

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Why Improvising Feels Good

So you feel good when you improvise, in part, because you have turned on that part of your brain that is most closely aligned with your aspirations. At the same time, you are quieting neural centers that would otherwise hold you back. But there’s more. The amygdala and hippocampus, structures in the brain that register emotions, especially anxiety, are also relatively quiet.

During improvisation, then, the brain stops being a slave to anxiety and rule-based inhibitions. Instead it is helping itself (that is, you) pursue cherished aims.

It is not so easy to find proficient jazz pianists eager to climb into an MRI scanner. That's why the number of subjects was too small for the study to be definitive. But the study design was clever enough — and the images clear enough — to paint a virtual picture of what the brain looks like when a person is being most inventive and spontaneous. In other words, this experiment provides a plausible depiction of the brain while in a state of "flow" or in the "zone."

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Practice, Practice, Practice

As far as we can tell, only human beings achieve this kind of high-order mental state. Although this study was focused on the biology of that mental state, it also demonstrated the value of practicing! After all, great jazz players can compose music on the fly only because they have mastered their instruments. They do not need to devote much conscious effort to finding the notes. Their playing is as automatic as speech.

Based on one small study, it is too early to declare that the medial prefrontal cortex is the seat of jazz, let alone all human creativity. But Drs. Limb and Braun have helped demonstrate that meaningful human work and play result from highly evolved human biology rather than magic.

Limb CJ, Braun AR. "Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: an FMRI study of jazz improvisation." PLoS ONE. 2008;3(2):e1679.

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Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller has an active clinical practice and has been on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more than 25 years.

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