Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Improvisation: Music To Our Ears

Q. What do the following have in common?
• An entertaining Whose Line Is It Anyway? episode
• A successful meal despite the forgotten vegetable broth on the grocery list
• An effective response to a surprising question

A. Improvisation.

In a world that’s generally unscripted, and where the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, improvisation is an important skill. David Wechsler, who developed the popular Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), defined intelligence as, “the aggregate or global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with his environment.” To deal effectively with one’s environment is often, essentially, to improvise.

Improvisation has long been a subject of interest to Dr. Charles Limb, who is not only a neuroscientist but a jazz musician. In an interesting TED Talk, Dr. Limb discusses the research he conducted along with Dr. Allen Braun on what happens in an improvising brain. The subjects of their study were musicians who played the keyboard while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. In one condition, they played a given piece they had memorized. In the other condition, they improvised over the chord progressions from the song. When improvising, versus playing a memorized piece, fMRI data revealed:
  • Increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (an area associated with decision-making and self-directed behavior)
  •  Decreased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex (an area involved in monitoring, judging, and correcting).
It seems that creativity is facilitated by one frontal lobe area turning on as another shuts off, so that ideas flow without being unduly inhibited or censored. Worry about judgement, whether from others or from ourselves, can be paralyzing, and it is worth noting that there is neurological support for giving ourselves permission to take some time to just brainstorm and create freely.

While it was David Wechsler who included creative adaptation as part of his definition of intelligence, and while we often use some of his tests here at The Yellin Center, we also acknowledge that the capacity to evaluate creativity is quite limited within any controlled assessment setting. Also, it should be noted that even some responses that may be marked wrong according to standardized scoring procedures may suggest more creativity than the kind of thinking that leads to the “right” answer. For example, one task has the child look at two rows of pictures and identify the two pictures, one from each row, that go together conceptually. A creative mind may be able to make links that are not the traditional ones but are clever nonetheless. The ability to find connections that may not be readily apparent on the surface has driven many important innovations over time, and sometimes you need to do some playing around to find them. After all, you can’t spell IMPROVE without IMPROV.

Photo credit: Nayuki via Flickr cc

No comments:

Post a Comment