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Bibliography: fMRIs of improvisation

Occasionally I go on a big research kick and spend way too long opening tabs on my computer and trying to figure out the significance of the study based on sample size. Here’s an attempt to organize that into something I can actually go back to.


We can all FEEL whats going on in our brains when we improvise but it's impossible for us to see it, unless we get fMRIs. Thankfully we don't have to because more and more studies are being done on other people. phew.


The first study I remember reading about from Johns Hopkins. Jazz pianists asked to play 1) a C-major scale 2) improvise in time to a metronome in C-major using only quarter notes (!) 3) a memorized blues melody to a recorded quartet 4) improvise to the same quartet

"The scientists 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. (...)

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."

Takeaways: increased individual self-expressed and lower inhibitions/self-censoring in improvisation.


A study from 2012 on freestyle rap from NIH. Rappers were asked to 1) improvise a freestyle rap 2) perform a well-rehearsed set of lyrics.

Takeaways: similar brain activity to melodic improvisation, with additional activation of left hemisphere language areas greater than that with memorized lyrics. this corresponds to the first phase of creativity i.e material generation. second phase involves revision and evaluation.


Here's a 2016 study on caption generation. "Professional and amateur 'improv' comedians and controls" were asked to create either a humorous or a mundane caption for a New Yorker cartoon.

Takeaways: excellent intro with other studies. Less activity in prefrontal cortex in improvisers with more experience.


more links!

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