Charles Limb, an associate professor otolaryngology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who is also on the faculty of the university’s Peabody Conservatory of Music, conducted one of the earliest brain-scan studies of musical improvisation in 2008. In that study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, Limb and his co-author Allen Braun persuaded six professional jazz pianists to play on a specially designed keyboard while lying inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The musicians played a tune they had memorized and then a tune they invented on the spot.
With the shift to improvisation, the researchers noted the appearance of a distinctive pattern of brain activity. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region associated with careful planning and self-censorship, became dormant, while parts of the brain connected to the senses — hearing, seeing, feeling — became especially lively. Most interesting, a brain area called the medial prefrontal cortex, linked to autobiographical storytelling, also showed increased activity. Inhibitions released and senses primed, these musicians were engaged in an act of self-expression, using the music to communicate something deep about themselves.
Improvisation can also bring fresh thinking into the workplace. The Second City, the famous improv-comedy troupe in Chicago, now has a corporate arm devoted to improving business communication skills through the same techniques its actors use to make people laugh. “Business isn’t neatly scripted,” notes Tom Yorton, chief executive officer of the Second City Communications. “It’s an unpredictable and unwieldy act of improvisation.” The organization’s trainers lead groups of coworkers, or “ensembles,” through exercises designed to break down inhibitions, heighten attention and ease self-expression — valuable aims, research suggests, for anyone who wants to come up with a riff the world hasn’t heard before."