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When jazz musicians improvise, the self-expression part of their brain lights up. The self-monitoring part goes down. (screenshot from Charles Limb’s TED talk video)

LOS ANGELES — What’s going on in artists’ brains when they create? I’ve done a few posts recently that suggest answers. But one of the most intriguing issues is the actual act of creation in the moment, i.e., how artists come up with incredible creativity in the moment.

A recent article in The Atlantic on MRIs pointed to a TED video by Charles Limb, a scientist who researches jazz musicians. “I’m just astounded,” he says, “How can this possibly be, how can the brain generate that much music, that much creativity, spontaneously?” It’s a good question: from jazz musicians to performance artists to live painters, artists and creative people constantly have to create in the moment. Many artists are brilliant at this. How is that possible?

A jazz musician improvising within an fMRI.

Limb walks through the process of his research, which includes incredible footage of a musician playing a piano while their heads are inside a claustrophobic fMRI (it’s harder to imagine someone live painting). So what’s the big deal, neurologically speaking, when you’re improvising?

It turns out that two things are happening: the part of your brain responsible for self-expression turns on. That makes sense. But then the part of your brain responsible for self-monitoring turns off. That means jazz musicians in the throes of improvised creation aren’t paying attention to their mistakes. As Limb explains, it was just one study, but the results make intuitive sense.

And there’s more: the brains of musicians in collaboration are more active in the language area, meaning live collaboration might be, neurologically, a conversation. After an incredible video of Dr. Limb freestyling on stage, we’re also treated to studies of freestyle rappers whose brains activate visually while they rap, much more so when they’re improvising.

When dialoguing with another musicians, jazz musicians’ brain slight up in Broca’s area–the part of the brain responsible for language.

The video is long for the internets — over 15 minutes — but it’s well worth watching. Also be sure to take time to read his interview in the TED Blog, where he says:

The idea that there is a “crisis in creativity” is in vogue right now, in conversations throughout the country about the failures of education in America. I suspect that what will happen is, a small group of researchers will take on these challenges from a wide range of disciplines. Many of the scientists that study these topics are really part-artist, internally. On one level, I personally care more about music than about science. I view it from the same lens as an artist would. And I think this is why my research may resonate with people. They see some artistic truth in it.

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An Xiao

Artist An Xiao (aka An Xiao Mina) photographs, films, installs, performs and tweets and has shown her work in publications and galleries internationally. Find her online at @anxiaostudio...

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