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Be creative - improvise!

Friday, 9 April 2010

I love hearing about the results of scans of brain activity, and the part that really intrigues me is how a single individuals brain can be seen to operate very differently under different circumstances. The report I read recently concerned jazz musicians, and what happens when they improvise.

To put it into some technical detail to begin with, here is an abstract from a report by Charles J. Limb and Allen R. Braun:

To investigate the neural substrates that underlie spontaneous musical performance, we examined improvisation in professional jazz pianists using functional MRI. By employing two paradigms that differed widely in musical complexity, we found that improvisation (compared to production of over-learned musical sequences) was consistently characterized by a dissociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex: extensive deactivation of dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions with focal activation of the medial prefrontal (frontal polar) cortex.
Such a pattern may reflect a combination of psychological processes required for spontaneous improvisation, in which internally motivated, stimulus-independent behaviors unfold in the absence of central processes that typically mediate self-monitoring and conscious volitional control of ongoing performance. Changes in prefrontal activity during improvisation were accompanied by widespread activation of neocortical sensorimotor areas (that mediate the organization and execution of musical performance) as well as deactivation of limbic structures (that regulate motivation and emotional tone). This distributed neural pattern may provide a cognitive context that enables the emergence of spontaneous creative activity.

In far, far simpler terms, our brain appears to function differently when we are being creative, and, to reverse the cause and effect, putting ourselves into a creative situation can alter the function of our brain.

With the current uncertain economic climate (double-dip, bounce of a dead cat, Keynesian recovery, and other economists explanations that show they have as little idea as the rest of us), a General Election only a few weeks away with the potential of a hung parliament, and the myriad of other things going on, now is the time to be creative. As we lead our teams, run our businesses, and get entrepreneurial, what can we learn from the results of functional MRI scans on jazz musicians about how to get creative?

Do something different

To break with convention, start by simply doing something a little different. Don’t follow the script (or the musical score), or be concerned about understanding the rules and regulations before starting – just make it up as you go along and notice what happens.

Do things with different people

Working with different people, who have different approaches, who disagree with you, and who are willing to challenge you, will aid the creative process. Listen, learn, take on board at least some of what they say, and challenge yourself to really understand where they are coming from.

Do things at different times

Another significant difference in the operation of our brain is how it is affected by time. Being tired can actually lead to greater (or at least different) creativity, as our ability to self-censor is reduced.

Do things in different places

Don’t hold your meetings in the same places if you want to think differently. I’m always amused by creative spaces in offices, all of which look pretty much the same and demonstrate a real lack of creativity. Leave the office, have a meeting in the park, a bookshop shop, in the local market – wherever – and notice how differently you think.


What creativity tricks have you used, and what have the results been? Pop your two-penneth in to the box below!

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