Two Johns Hopkins researchers have isolated the part of the brain that is most active during improv — the part that Jennifer Lin accesses during her TEDTalk performance, and that Robin Williams used the other night during the BBC debate at TED in Monterey.
Setting up six right-handed jazz pianists inside an fMRI, researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braun recorded them playing, first, a jazz composition they had memorized, then an improvisation on that same piece. Essentially subtracting the first brain scan from the second, Limb and Braun isolated the brain activity associated with improv, and found that:
a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions, Limb suggests.
The researchers also saw increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This area has been linked with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself.
Look for more details in the original journal article — including audio files, brain scans, and notes on the custom non-ferromagnetic piano keyboard playable inside an MRI.