Improvisation as Lying

November 29, 2009

Musicians who improvise know this on some level. But Jonah Lehrer (whose valuable writing has been referred to here before) writes in a new article of some studies of damaged frontal lobes that put improvisation in the realm of confabulation, or a kind of lying with no immoral implications. In it he refers back to an earlier article in which he told us that

The first study, led by Charles Limb of the NIH and Johns Hopkins University, examined the brain activity of jazz musicians as they played on a piano. The musicians began with pieces that required no imagination such as the C-major scale and a simple blues tune they’d memorized in advance. But then came the creativity condition: The musicians were told to improvise a new melody as they played alongside a recorded jazz quartet.

While the musicians riffed on the piano, giant magnets whirred overhead monitoring minor shifts in their brain activity. The researchers found that jazz improv relied on a carefully choreographed set of mental events, which allowed the musicians to discover their new melodies. Before a single note was played, the pianists exhibited a “deactivation” of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a brain area associated with planned actions and self-control. In other words, they were inhibiting their inhibitions, which allowed the musicians to create without worrying about what they were creating.

But it’s not enough to just unleash the mind — successful improv requires a very particular kind of expression. That’s why the fMRI machine also recorded a spike in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a fold of frontal lobe just behind the eyes. This area is often linked with self-expression — it lights up, for instance, whenever people tell a story in which they’re the main character. The scientists argue that this part of the brain is required for jazz improv because the musicians are channeling their artistic identity, searching for the notes that best summarize their style. “Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form,” Limb says. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

In the second experiment scientists at Harvard investigated the varieties of musical improvisation. They recruited 12 classically trained pianists and had them spontaneously create both rhythms and melodies. Unlike the Hopkins experiment, which compared brain activity between improv and memorized piano melodies, this brain scanning experiment was primarily designed to compare activity between two different kinds of improv.

As expected, both improv conditions led to a surge in activity in a variety of brain areas, including parts of the premotor cortex and, most intriguingly, the inferior frontal gyrus. The premotor activity is simply an echo of execution — the novel musical patterns, after all, must still be translated by the fingers. The inferior frontal gyrus, however, has primarily been investigated for its role in language — it includes Broca’s area, which is essential for the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people create music on the piano? The scientists argue that expert musicians create new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is another word.

We have all learned, to one degree or another, not to lie — or at least not to get caught at it. In improvisation, we need to get caught at it. I have long contended that education in music is more a matter of freeing up capabilities than it is acquiring them. Picasso says something like that, as Lehrer quotes:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” From the perspective of the brain, Picasso is on to something, as the frontal lobes (and the DPLFC in particular) are the last brain areas to fully develop. And so the super-ego settles in, and we become too self-conscious to create. Obviously, we need the frontal lobes to function – just look at the tragic life of SB – but every talent comes with a tradeoff. When we repress our urge to confabulate we also repress the urge to create. To quote Picasso once again: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” But it’s still a lie.

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