by by Erin Schikowski

illustration by by Juana Medina

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first named it the "flow state" in the 1990s, but we lay folk would more likely call it a trance, spirituality or being 'in the groove.'

In the world of jazz musicians, however, they call this experience improvisation--that distinctive moment of full involvement when the musician becomes completely absorbed in the act of creating music, forgetting about both time and the life he'll snap back into when the solo ends.
In the moment of improvisation, the jerking muscles running up a jazz pianist's hands and fingers move exactly as they do when he plays a memorized piece of written music. His spine holds him as straight as usual, and the Tibialis anterior, the shin muscle, contracts and relaxes to the rhythm as his foot taps out the beat. The only real physical difference between a jazz pianist's performance during improvisation and a memorized recital, scientists have recently discovered, lies in that most mysterious of organs: the brain.

Charles Limb, Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology at John Hopkins University, and his colleague Allen Braun took up the largely unexplored topic of jazz improvisation and neurology by watching the brain activity of six professional jazz pianists using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology. Limb and Braun found that when in the midst of improvising, the part of the brain involved in self-censorship shuts down markedly while the part that controls creativity becomes "rambunctiously active." They discussed their surprise in finding that "the innovative, internally motivated production of novel material (at once rule based and highly structured)... can apparently occur outside of conscious awareness and beyond volitional control." In other words, improvisation is accompanied not only by a revving up of the brain's creativity center but also by the shutting down of the area involved with self-inhibition.


The brain activity of the six musicians was monitored while they laid on their backs with their knees slightly elevated in a cramped fMRI scanner as they played on a specially designed, non-ferromagnetic keyboard propped on their raised thighs. It seems likely that the creative activity in the musicians' brains would have been more intense if Limb and Braun had examined the brain of an improvising musician in his or her true element, in a nightclub instead of a laboratory. The idea behind fMRI scanning is that the more active parts of the brain receive increased blood flow, but the magnetic field created by fMRI technology makes it impossibly dangerous to bring metal instruments (think saxophone) into the scanner. The special keyboard used by the six jazz pianists was hooked up to MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology that recorded each musician's output so that the scientists could compare the subjects' brain activity with the music he or she was playing at any given time.

The researchers found that when playing a pre-composed piece of music, the part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was active, but when improvising, the medial prefrontal cortex took over as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex slowed down. In other words, they found that in improvising, the part of the brain that processes pre-composed music slows down, while a completely different part speeds up. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which process pre-composed music is associated with self-monitoring and motor control, whereas the medial prefrontal cortex, which speeds up during improvisation, is associated with creative behaviors and self-initiated thoughts. Although Limb and Braun had expected an increase in activity in the part of the brain involved in creative behaviors, they were surprised by the visible slowing of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.


According to the authors' best knowledge, only one other study has been done on the specific neurological changes that occur when musicians improvise. More experiments of this kind are likely to follow since the results could well apply to other modes of improvisation beyond the realm of jazz and music in general.

According to the Limb and Braun study, there could be other implications regarding "adaptation to changing environments, problem solving and perhaps most importantly, the use of natural language, all of which are unscripted behaviors that capitalize on the generative capacity of the brain."

From music to theater to broadcast television--we encounter improvisation everywhere. Take, for example, Larry David in his 'mostly ad-libbed,' HBO television series Curb Your Enthusiasm or Iron Chef or Whose Line is It Anyway? Getting the art of improvisation down to a science, should we eventually get there, could have implications in areas outside of entertainment, too. Traders on the stock market have coined the expression "in the pipe" to describe the flow-like state of concentration they achieve on the floor while trading on particularly busy days, and sport psychology uses the concept of flow to help athletes achieve their highest level of play. Imagine the implications of being able to scientifically assess a person's improvisational skills... the evaluation industry (College Board, cough), should it ever show interest, could use this information in any number of ways.

A natural human mechanism for improvisation might even serve as a model for intelligent design--someday, that is. For now though, it will be interesting to see how the hard sciences approach the psychological concept of flow. In the words of Csikszentmihalyi himself, flow is a spiritual state in which "the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz." Limb and Braun's experiment looks only at jazz, but their discovery could spark serious scientific inquiry into spirituality and the mystery of human creativity.
ERIN SCHIKOWSKI B'11 rolls with the punches, goes with the flow.