Fingers graze a keyboard, poised to play. A trumpet rises to the lips. Drumsticks perch in the air. What comes next? No one knows. The beauty of jazz is the way improvisation is entwined with art, each instrument capable of hijacking the melody and reinventing it in ways even the musician doesn’t understand. Or as trumpeter Miles Davis put it, “I’ll play it and tell you what it is later.”
Charles Limb has a far more scientific description: “That’s not just phenomenal music. That’s phenomenal neurobiology.”
A neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and an accomplished jazz musician, Limb has long been fascinated by the genesis of creativity. Improvisational jazz, he believes, is essentially pure creation in action. It’s what can happen when the brain is freed from having to follow rules and simply invents. “I had always intuitively understood that the creative process in jazz improvisation is very different from the process of memorization,” he explains. “When you hear great jazz, like John Coltrane or Miles Davis, it has this jaw-dropping quality to it, and what’s been described as ‘a sound of surprise’ takes place. And you think to yourself, ‘Wow.’”
So Limb looked for a way to study what happens in the brain when it turns inspiration into creation. Find the right key, he believed, and science could one day unlock the secret to any kind of creativity, whether it’s artistic or something more ordinary, such as a better solution for organizing your day.
To see whether he could quantify the seemingly ineffable way the brain creates, Limb asked jazz musicians to play a memorized song while their brains were scanned with functional MRI. Then the musicians were scanned while they were riffing to compare the differences. The results, published in 2008, were fascinating.
While the musicians improvised, the part of the brain that allows humans to express ourselves—the medial prefrontal cortex—became more active. At the same time, the part of the brain responsible for self-inhibition and control, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, became dormant.
In other words, in order to improvise successfully, the musicians needed to turn off the part of their brains responsible for self-monitoring, Limb says. “If you’re too self-conscious, it’s very hard to be free creatively.”
Jazz musicians aren’t the only folks whose brains show unique signs of creativity unleashed. In the past decade, the field of improvisational neuroscience has expanded to peer inside the brains of rappers, classical musicians, stand-up comics, caricature artists, writers, and even so-called divergent thinkers (people who are excellent at thinking on their feet).
These studies consistently show a difference between people’s brains when they are improvising and when they are not. “So we’re quite convinced,” Limb notes, “that the state of creativity is a different functional brain state, and it’s measurable.”
One of the first myths that this research has debunked: “Right-brained” people are more creative, while “left-brained” people are more analytical. In fact, an analysis of the brain activity of more than 1,000 people revealed that no one has a dominant side of the brain; everyone uses the networks in both the left and the right sides, and both sides of the brain are intimately involved in creativity and change. Here are 10 things all highly creative people do.
Another debunked myth: The ability to create on the fly is a talent only certain people have, and they have it from birth. Rather, research finds that the best improvisers are those who have honed their skill over hundreds of hours of practice. Explains Rex Jung, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico who studies aptitude, intelligence, and creativity, “The more time you devote to developing a skill set, the more raw material you have to draw on and the easier it is to improvise.” The more paintings you have done, the faster you can identify which colors will mix well. The more jokes you have told, the easier it is to know which punch lines will draw the most laughs.
Moreover, although it seems a little counterintuitive, improvisation itself is a skill that you can improve with practice. In a 2018 study at Columbia University, researchers showed that musicians who regularly practiced improvisation were better at it and more quickly able to change chords in a piece of music (while maintaining a pleasant harmony) than musicians who were accustomed to just following what was written.
Science has also demonstrated that improvisational creativity is not restricted to the arts. Limb says that the “idea of responding to something that we didn’t anticipate happening is a fundamental attribute of what it means to be human. Humans are hardwired to create.” The creative brain state that Limb has documented in musicians, comedians, and artists is similar to that of athletes “in the zone” who turn off the self-monitoring part of their brains and use their instincts about which shots to take. This mind-set is also what we employ in daily life to deal with unexpected occurrences. Faced with a delayed train, for instance, we might decide to walk or take the bus. Or, realizing that we’re out of lemons while cooking, we might substitute a lime—or something else.
“Everyone is creative; it’s just a matter of degree,” says Jung. “We have this prototypical idea of artistic creativity, but we are creative in our relationships, our work, our cooking, or even arranging our homes in a different way.”
To train your brain to think creatively, then, look for ways to improvise in your daily life. Improv comedian Anthony Veneziale practices this with his daughter by giving her a “yes” day. For one day, as long as she doesn’t hurt anyone, they will do anything she wants: Have ice cream for breakfast. Go swimming. Visit a local park. This sort of exercise is just as important to your health as the physical kind. Limb notes that “the creative brain is a generally more activated brain than a noncreative one”—and an activated brain is generally better able to ward off forgetfulness, absentmindedness, and even dementia. Next, read up on these other habits your 80-year-old brain will thank you for doing today.