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What Happens to the Brain During Creativity?

By Shlomo Maital  

John Coltrane

   At the main bus stop, at my university Technion, there is a set of bookshelves, where people drop off unwanted books and others browse and take them. I’ve put a great many books there and they always disappear quickly.  

   One day this week I noticed some rather old copies of Scientific American. I took two of them, to read while on the bus. One of them had a fascinating article by Charles J. Limb, a surgeon who plays saxophone, does cochleal transplants, and loves John Coltrane. (The article was in the May 2011 issue, nearly 6 years ago).

     Using FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), Limb asked, what happens to the brain when jazz musicians improvise?   Coltrane, legendary tenor sax player, did incredible improvisations.   How? Why?

   Here is what Limb found: “creativity is whole-brain…during improvisation, the lateral prefrontal region of the cortex shuts down (areas involved in conscious self-inhibition, self-monitoring, evaluation of rightness and wrongness of what you are doing). Another area of the prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, turns on…this is the focal area of the brain that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative..it has do to with sense of self.”

     Brief summary? Want to create? Turn off all inhibition, judging, evaluating, good or bad.   Turn them off.   Activate your own self, self-awareness, self-expression… express who you are, what you are, tell your story.

     And Coltrane? “He practiced. He was an obsessive—he practiced obsessively. He was after the ability to have an idea he had never had before…be profound, and be able to executive the idea.”

     John Coltrane was creative, had ideas…but he had technique, he mastered his instrument so that he could effortless IMPLEMENT his creative ideas. You need both. Discovery (creativity). And Delivery (practice, practice, mastery mastery!).

       That, according to Limb, is creativity.

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2017
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