How Creativity Might Work

At age 10, I began learning to play the piano. Like everyone else I knew who was learning to play, I was taught in the traditional way- learning how to read and play sheet music. I took piano lessons for about five years and then quit. It was hard, it was long, and frankly in my opinion — quite boring.

Years later, in my early 20s, I decided to pick it back up but this time, I decided to take a different route. I signed up for jazz piano lessons. Jazz piano is pure improvisation — there is no sheet music. People often comment, “Well it’s good that you took lessons as a kid — you probably have a decent head start.” While this is true to some extent, my classical piano background is not as advantageous as I had originally anticipated.

Both types of lessons involve the piano, but the theory and the way the brain works when playing the two styles couldn’t be more different. Classical piano is rote memorization, while on the other hand, jazz piano is pure improvisation. In both instances the brain is producing music, but it is functioning in two completely different ways.

There is a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. Within the prefrontal cortex lives the lateral prefrontal cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex (side note: I am not a medical professional, so forgive me if my illustrations and explanations are too simplistic).

Part of the responsibility of the lateral prefrontal cortex is self-monitoring. Think of it as the mechanism that keeps your random thoughts at bay. Conversely, the medial prefrontal cortex is responsible for self-expression — your impulsivity mechanism. The medial prefrontal cortex may produce that inappropriate comment or weird thought, while the lateral prefrontal cortex says, “No, don’t say that, that would be inappropriate.” The two parts typically work together in a system of checks and balances.

A great TED talk given by Charles Limb began to uncover the causes and effects of when these two parts of the brain stop working together. He set out to compare the activity in the brain of a classical pianist versus the brain of a jazz pianist while performing. He wanted to know:

What happens in the brain during something that’s memorized and over-learned, and what happens in the brain during something that is spontaneously generated or improvised?

Although his research is preliminary, Charles Limb found something extraordinary occurring. While analyzing the brain of a musician playing music from a score versus improvising, he discovered a weird dissociation happening in the frontal lobe.

The lateral prefrontal cortex — the part responsible for self-monitoring — actually began to shut off, while the medial prefrontal cortex — the part responsible for self-expression — became more active. Instead of these two parts of the brain working together as they typically do, one part needed to get out of the way so the other one could flourish.

Creativity is what drives innovation. Companies spend millions upon millions of dollars every year trying to encourage and foster creativity within their organizations. Though Limb’s study merely skims the surface of the varied workings of the frontal lobe, it begins to offer valuable insight into what is happening in the brain during a creative period.

With this in mind, it begs the question that if his theory is true, could creativity one day be prescribed? If we were able to identify which parts of the brain help stimulate creativity and which parts inhibit it, imagine a drug that actually shuts off certain parts of the brain, allowing an individual to be more creative.

Maybe someday you’ll wake up, grab your coffee, pop your creativity pill, and head to the office.

Until next time,

Nate

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