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General Medical Questions
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Question : I play jazz and especially feel good when I improvise? Why is that so?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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November 01, 2012
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A:

A skier or a carpenter could well have asked the same thing. Improvisation is an essential element of creativity, both at work and at play.

Mastery and skill are important sources of pride. Accomplished musicians cherish the creative freedom such mastery enables.

Some research shows that improvisation turns on a small region in the front of the brain. This area processes information that serves your sense of self. In a way, it’s the brain region most closely aligned with your hopes.

Two neural centers get quiet during improvisation:

  • One of those areas helps you follow rules. The rule-following part of the brain is active during problem solving and conscious planning.
  • The second quieted area registers emotion. In particular, it registers anxiety. This region helps you avoid danger.

It is essential to our survival to know how to follow rules and avoid danger. But rules and fear generally hold us back from being creative.

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

This high-order mental state is only available — as far as we can tell — to human beings. But your mother was right. You do have to practice!

After all, great jazz players have mastered their instruments. That gives them the ability to compose music on the fly. They do not need to devote much conscious effort to finding the notes. Their playing is as natural as speech.

Neuroscientists love learning such nuggets of information. This knowledge about the brain shows us that meaningful human work and play result from highly evolved human biology, not magic.

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