Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Life unfolds in moments. Pay Attention.

The Mind in the Moment
Artistic improvisation shapes the psychology of its practitioners

Performing a fugue or making one up on the spot—which is more impressive? What about reading a speech or making one up? Reciting an excellent joke or improvising an entire scene? Not much is more awe-inspiring than seeing a new creation made right in front of your eyes. Invention requires a tremendous amount of skill, and spontaneous invention magnifies the perception of talent. “Improvisation is the ultimate mindful act,” says Harvard Psychology Professor Ellen J. Langer.

In a sense, we unknowingly improvise daily. Maybe the clearest example of this fact is human interaction: we all invent ideas while conversing. “Without this type of creativity, humans wouldn’t have advanced as a species,” said Dr. Charles J. Limb of John Hopkins University, as quoted in a Johns Hopkins press release. “It’s an integral part of who we are.”

Luckily, we have gained a myriad of techniques since childhood, such as changing our voice tone and body language, learning idioms, and building a vocabulary, which we call on instantly whenever the need to improvise arises. However, the ability to improvise art is not essential to daily life. It takes careful planning and practice to assimilate artistic technique so thoroughly that an artist has a vocabulary and set of patterns to call on effortlessly. “To be completely fluent on an instrument is similar to speech,” says jazz pianist Chase E. Morrin ’15. “It’s like talking through the instrument.” Just as mastering a language elicits a certain mindset, thorough knowledge of an art form and its technique amounts to an alternate mindset for processing the world.

But can donning this new mindset affect the minds of improvisers outside the performance arena? What parts of the brain are activated and deactivated during improvisation and why? By studying such questions, psychologists and doctors have gained insight into improvisers’ minds. The data accumulated suggests that the path to fluency in an improvisational form, although arduous, can positively affect the improviser away from the stage by freeing up his imagination and loosening the pull of inhibitions.


An improv troupe performing a 10-minute scene based on the word “lizard,” a blazingly fast Charlie Parker solo, and a verbal annihilation of an opponent in a policy debate all provoke a central audience question: “how the hell did they think of that?” Yet, to artistic improvisers, there is no thinking, at least not in the technical sense that we would expect.

“When I’m performing, thinking becomes more of an abstract thing where I’m trying to focus on the vibe of the room and the general direction I want to the music to go,” says Morrin. “All the specific things I practice become just a palette that I draw from when I’m improvising.” Morrin suggests that there are far too many technical possibilities—what notes would be acceptable for a certain chord, what substitutions would harmonically develop the piece, what fingering is required for a certain passage—to consciously register while spontaneously creating. These possibilities must instead be an immediate resource, like a painter’s palette.

While in music the best way to acquire technique is concrete and widely known, there is no single or obvious way to acquire improv comedy skill. The Immediate Gratification Players (IGP), one of Harvard’s numerous improv comedy groups, dedicates a large percentage of its practice time to simple technique exercises. IGP focuses mainly on body language, space definition, and conveying social status within a partnership. “Improv technique is about training your instincts so you can be more and more on the scene,” says Ari D. Brenner ’14, an IGP member. “You don’t want to do any cognitive thinking.” The comedy in improv comedy arises mainly from how accurately and smoothly the players convey a preposterous scene or idea; thus, a huge portion of practice time is spent on exercises that allow the improvisers to forget they are improvising and focus on conveying the scene itself.

Like IGP players, policy debaters are actors of a sort. Every speech and statement at a debate is essentially an acted monologue. At debate tournaments the speakers seem like a combination of energetic actors and refined politicians. Their actions and speech become excessively animated all while improvising arguments at up to 500 words per minute. At this pace, thought is no longer an option; the debaters must rely on their instincts and previous knowledge to win. “The most important thing when you’re debating is to develop the ability to pick your best argument,” says debater Sandesh K. Kataria ’14. “You have to think on your feet a lot, since you’ve just heard a flutter of arguments at 500 to 600 words per minute and need to choose which points to debunk and how.”

A successful improviser must be able to internalize fully his or her technique to the point that it can be called on automatically. Improvisation, however, is not a solitary art. The artist must also master careful listening.


Improvisation is a team sport. Although it is easier for the audience to judge a single improviser’s skill while he or she is soloing, improvisers often consider one’s ability to support a solo equally vital and difficult to master. For Brenner, the best improv comics are not solo artists. “A common misconception is that to be a good improviser the one and only criteria is to be funny. In my opinion the best improvisers are excellent listeners; that’s the number one skill.” Improvisation is an art form with no safety net and a high risk factor. Thus, the best improvisers must always be attentive and focused on their fellow improvisers in order to lower the probability of error.

Unlike traditional jazz, in which chord changes are written out, free jazz has no guidelines at all. This lack of structure multiplies the probability of error as well as the importance of listening. For Andrew J. Katzenstein ’13, who plays free jazz, having a great ear and listening to his fellow performers is a crucial aspect of his art. “Musicians get into a situation and start playing. There’s no discussion, there’s no roadmap, there’s no music. Somebody plays and others just go ahead and continue.” A free jazz improviser must be able to hear and assimilate effortlessly both the melodic and harmonic ideas in his head with the sounds produced by his peers. To combine these two trains of thought musically is a strenuous intellectual test. When asked to comment on Dr. Langer’s statement that “improvisation is the ultimate mindful act,” Katzenstein responded, “I totally agree. In order to be a good improviser you have to be aware, totally keyed in to your surroundings. It takes a very, very profound knowledge of yourself and other people.”

Katzenstein notes that great improvisers must pay careful attention to their own musical output. In many improv forms, cultivating the ability to predict in your head what you will perform is the most difficult skill to master. Morrin’s improvisational style is focused on replacing traditional chords with complex variations. “What I try to do is hear individual voices and hear their own movement,” he says. “How you resolve these individual voices is the crux of jazz.” Morrin, who has been playing jazz piano for 10 years, says he finds the ability to hear the movement of these individual voices the most elusive skill.

How to best resolve a Cmaj13 chord to a Bbmin9 may seem hard to Chase, but for an audience member trying to imagine the artistic and psychological capacity to improvise is just as difficult. Luckily, science allows us to peek inside brains in the midst of spontaneous creation.


The sight of an improviser is an easy one to conjure. Their eyes are often closed in thought, they are swaying in a trance to their performance, and at the highest level they seem completely at one with their art. Why should improvisation evoke such a trancelike state? Recent research shows that by shutting down parts of the brain that determine inhibitions and turning up parts that facilitate creativity, improvisers reach a state that allows them to be optimally creative and free.

A Johns Hopkins study called “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation” used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines to scan jazz musicians’ brains while improvising and not improvising. While playing back a previously memorized passage, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which controls self-inhibition and consciousness, was highly active. Such areas of the brain would be activated in a job interview or awkward social situation. Interestingly, while improvising, these inhibitory parts of the brain were nearly shut down in the musicians. This absence of activity in this self-conscious brain region was coupled with increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region connected with expressions of personality, such as storytelling. This result was the same whether the musician was told to improvise alone on just a simple C major scale or whether he was allowed to improvise freely in any key with a full jazz quartet. The conclusion is startling: even the slightest modicum of improvisation shuts down inhibitions and amps up creativity.

An video on the website of the British science and art organization the Welcome Collection, “The Science of Improvisation,” shows that the levels of activity in the inhibitory regions of the brain are identical while dreaming and improvising. This fact explains both an improviser’s apparent dream-like state and his or her ability to perform with such uninhibited freedom. This creativity also manifests itself in daily life. “A lot of musicians improvise outside of their instruments” says Katzenstein. “Improv is a way of life, not just a music thing. It comes across in how they talk to people.”


The improvisational lifestyle, if adopted, can have numerous positive benefits for the breadth and utility of our imaginations. “For the past 40 years I’ve been studying the mindlessness of actions,” says Langer. “The research makes it clear that mostly all of us are mindless nearly all the time.” By using the word “mindless,” Langer implies that most people go through the world without the sense of presence that allows for them to notice or create new things. To Langer, improvisers seek and perform the novel rather than repeat trite, overdone combinations.

To Alfonso Montouri, author of the “The Complexity of Improvisation and the Improvisation of Complexity,” an article published in the journal Human Relations, the avoidance of such repetition is really what drives creativity. “Creativity involves constant organizing, disorganizing, and reorganizing,” he writes in the article. “It involves actively breaking down assumptions, givens, traditions, pushing boundaries and moving out of comfort zones.” For Montouri, then, all creative ventures are inherently improvisational.

Langer once did a study with an orchestra to learn whether or not being “mindful”—defined earlier as choosing new combinations—made the performers and audiences happier. On one run members of the orchestra was told to play a passage mindlessly by “remembering a time you played a performance extremely well and replicating it.” On the second run the musicians were told to play the passage mindfully by “playing it inventively in a way you would do best.” When the recordings were played back to test listeners, the listeners overwhelmingly favored the mindfully played recordings. The musicians also said they preferred playing mindfully.

The search for fresh perspectives not only increases happiness but also mental stability and problem solving. “According to the research, creative persons score higher both on measures of pathology and of psychological health,” says Montouri. “In other words, they have access to a much broader range of human experience.” “Science of Improvisation” also finds that improvisation has a positive impact on problem-solving abilities and improvisers in all art forms often have heightened verbal and spatial abilities directly after a performance. Most research on the effects of improvisation on the mind can be summarized simply: even small amounts of creative thinking and improvisation makes people smarter and happier.

We often go through our lives “mindlessly,” seeking only to get through the day. But what if every lesson, every conversation, every experience was as original and novel as an improv performance, a policy debate, or a jazz solo? The musicians Katzenstein knows live this ideal: “they push themselves and try not to repeat themselves; they try to be fresh as musicians and as people.”

Published: Tuesday, November 01, 2011

After 40 years of studying mindfulness, Harvard's Ellen Langer says nearly all of us are mindless nearly all the time.

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