Saturday, April 3, 2010

Improvise Like a 7 Year Old?

If you are a musician about to embark on a solo, you might take the advice of psychologist Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University and 'play like a 7year old'. In a recent study (along with partner Darya Zabelina) the scientists assigned 2 groups of undergraduates with specific sets of creative tasks after being given the following instructions. Group 1:

"You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?"

Group 2 was given the same instructions with the first sentence omitted:

"School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?"

The results? Group 2 didn't imagine themselves as 7 year olds but instead came about the assignment from their 'adolescent present' point of view. Group 1 imagined themselves as little kids and scored far higher on the creative tasks. They came up with more ideas that were also more original. 'The effect was especially pronounced among "introverts," who exert more mental energy suppressing their "spontaneous associations".

As writer Jonah Lehrer (a frequent contributor to one of DLP's favorite magazines Wired) writes on his blog, 'One possibility is that we trade away the ingenuity of our youth for executive function. As the brain develops, the pre-frontal cortex expands in density and volume. As a result, we're able to exhibit impulse control and focused attention. The unfortunate side-effect of this cortical growth is an increased ability to repress errant thoughts. While many of these thoughts deserve to be suppressed, it turns out that we also censor the imagination.

We're so scared of saying the wrong thing that we end up saying nothing at all. One interesting line of evidence in support of this speculative theory is that jazz musicians engaged in improvisation selectively "de-activate" their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In other words, they inhibit their inhibitory brain areas, which allows them to create without worrying about what they're creating.'

The November 2006 FastCompany magazine features many great articles about how memories are stored and how technology may become more of a component to recalling them. I wrote the following letter and was published in the January 2007 issue - it reads in part:

As a jazz saxophonist, teacher, and music-learning software developer, I was particularly intrigued by Bradley Rhodes's "Remembrance Agent," Eric Horvitz's "Lifebrowser," and Devon Technologies' DEVONthink. What was
left of my hair began to stand on end as I realized these applications come close to mimicking what my brain does as I play music, especially during the improvisation process. Bits and pieces of information (not always musical) fly by instantly and manifest themselves over, through, and around the pre-practiced patterns to create new and sometimes exciting ideas. Of course, the bits of info that are forgotten, along with those that I recall but can only feebly attempt to get out of my saxophone, are often what make each improvisation (hopefully) beautifully different from the others.

1 comment:

eugene cantera said...

Checkout the new DLP music program with both KOre and Jazz Courses so you can 'learn how to improvise' on any of 37 instruments!