Charles Limb’s Study of Your Brain on Improv

This week I’m releasing my latest short film, “#ImprovJam: A Musical Convergence of Jazz, Rock & Rap.” I’ll have more posts about the making of it in the coming days and weeks, but you can watch it on the SoundandSEA.TV website now. Essentially, I got a jazz trio to perform some improvised jam sessions with a rock guitarist and a freestyle rapper.

During the pre-production process, I came across a fascinating TEDx talk with neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Limb. Limb also happens to be an accomplished musician. As such, he has performed quite a bit of research on the effect of musical creativity on the brain. His TEDx talk in particular was about how the brain reacts to playing a memorized piece of music vs. improvising. For his subjects, he looked at a world-class jazz pianist and a freestyle rapper. His findings were intriguing.

“During improv, the brain deactivates the area involved in self-censoring, while cranking up the region linked with self-expression,” Limb explains. “Essentially, a musician shuts down his inhibitions and lets his inner voice shine through.”

I love the idea of letting down your inhibitions to let your inner voice shine. So it got me thinking: are there equivalent exercises we visual artists can do to “exercise” our creativity muscles in line with Dr. Limb’s study on improvisation? Here are some ideas I had:

  • Go out and shoot an “improvised” film: a short visual piece with no editing. Just find a subject, shoot it, and tell your story improvisationally in-camera.
  • Next time you go for a walk, take your smart phone and start snapping photos of the first things you see that inspire you to photograph them. Don’t think about it, just do it. No second takes either. Snap the photo and go. (A month or so ago I did this during a visit with the family to downtown Seattle. Was a lot of fun ) Also, do NOT take your regular camera. Let the limitations of the phone stretch your creativity further.
  • Take some old footage you have and re-edit it (either all or a portion) to look, feel, and sound completely different than your original cut.

The idea is to stretch your imagination and shut down your inhibitions.

I strongly advise taking the time to watch the 16+ minute presentation. It gets kinda techy in some parts, but not so much you won’t be able to follow him. Then, share some ways you exercise your creative muscles.

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