This piece from Jeff Haden (who can count me among the 100,000 readers he has on LInkedIn) reflects new developments in motivational psychology: we now talk about identity (and marketers live for that, right?), rather than personality.

Here it is…

We all have huge personal goal we want to accomplish: A big, challenging, amazing goal. We think about it, dream about it, obsess about it… but we never accomplish it.

That could be because we also talked about it, because according to some studies, people who talk about their intentions are less likely to follow through on those intentions.

Say you want to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, a grueling five- to seven-month trek from Georgia to Maine. (Having completed about 2% of it, I’m not so well on my section-hiking way, much less thru-hiking.)

You’re having dinner with friends and you tell them all about it. “Oh, wow!” one exclaims. “That sounds amazing. But won’t it be super hard?”

“Indeed it will,” you say, puffing out your chest, and you share what you know about tent sites, shelters, infrequent showers, and the cool trail name you’ll get.

It’s fun. It feels awesome to bask in the glow of people who admire you for wanting to take on such a huge challenge.

It feels… it feels like you’re already on the Trail.

It also means you’re less likely to someday be on the Trail, because according to this study, “When other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.”

In short, you already got a huge kick out of people thinking of you as a Trail hiker… so now you’re less motivated to actually be a Trail hiker.

Sounds counterintuitive, right? Aren’t we supposed to share our intentions so other people can support and motivate us?

According to NYU psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, one of the authors of the study, that’s not always the case. Gollwitzer thinks the issue lies in our sense of identity. Each of us wants tobe certain things, so we naturally declare those intentions even if we have not yet becomethose things.

Describing how I plan to run a marathon, how I bought running shoes and joined a gym and created a training plan, certainly makes me feel good… but it also makes me feel like I’m already part of the way to being a marathoner even though I haven’t trained at all.

Sometimes declaring what we want to be and how we will get there causes us to feel we are farther along the path of becoming who we want to be, and therefore makes us less motivated — even though we’ve actually done nothing but talk.

So try it. Pick a goal. Create a plan to achieve it. Get help, get guidance, get input from other people who have accomplished that goal… but otherwise keep your goal and your plan to yourself. Don’t talk about it: Focus solely on doing the work required to achieve your goal.

Then, when you do achieve your goal, hey, feel free talk all you want. If nothing else you’ll enjoy how surprised your friends are when they realize you’ve accomplished something awesome, something they didn’t even know you were attempting.

But my guess is you won’t talk about it, since the personal satisfaction of achievement is infinitely sweeter than public acclaim.



As we move into 2012 we are now a century on from Ford and Taylorism.

But don’t we still treat work as a time and production issue rather than a creativity and results issue?

Regrettably, the century old idea that being seen in the office is the same as hard work is hard to break. More and more studies show that, as Parkinson’s Law stated, work fills the time available. Interestingly several large companies have been extending the idea of hot-desking to one of time: you come in, you work hard for two to three hours, give it your all, and amazingly production increases, motivation increases, sales improve and retention improves.

Do we only give lip service to the ideas of new work, creativity, cognitive process and cognitive progress, but when push comes to shove, do we still want our pound of flesh for the dollar invested? We cannot hope to break the 9-5 cycle until we see that effort is the marker not simply the minutes logged – and honestly, let’s face it, in a hundred year’s time, do we still want work to look like it does today for our children’s children or do we want to get the job done, be thinking while sailing, playing golf, or, exotically, sitting in the thought space in our flying cars; whatever the future may look like, one things for sure, we don’t want to be filling up all our lives with wasted hours.

The intelegant solution is to reward effort and results, not longevity.

Source FlickR: Peter McDonald

Source FlickR: Peter McDonald

How we use Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Quotient in teams and organizations matters.

While we will be dealing with metrics, alignment, and implementation, initially we need to consider the fundamental purpose of emotions and how they work when at work.

Let’s see how EI can improve sales teams for a starter. And an environmental approach to keep talent.

Rather than look at Goleman’s or Bar-On’s overwhelming contributions to EI initially, I would like to start on another more empirical track, and hopefully we’ll converge along the way and see how these threads tie together.

As stated in the introductory post, Emotional Quotient (EQ) and Emotional Intelligence (EI) has little to do with “being emotional”. Again, emotional intelligence is not how emotional a person is. It is a set of skills that enable me to be emotionally stable and mature: clever, if you will, at handling emotions.

It took several of the most brilliant medical minds of the pre-War period to understand the simple formula:

See Bear -> Feel Fear -> Run or Freeze

Through a set of extremely precise experiments psychologists, all previously medical doctors, sought the answer as to how and why we react the way we do. Especially to fear.

It led to some fundamental discoveries in the neurobiology as to how the brain and body create, react, and learn of and from emotional responses.

Bear -> Fear -> Run is otherwise known, in Walter B Cannon’s own words, as the flight or fight response. Cannon with Philip Bard proposed what has become the best known theory of emotional response. Some 50 years earlier, William James, the father of modern rigorous psychology in America and Carl Lange in Denmark both separately proposed what has come down to us as the James-Lange theory.

In the James-Lange theory the suggestions is: see bear, your body reacts before your cognitive mind does, your mind recognizes these reactions of the nervous system, and calls it fear (Or love, or whatever emotion you feel). Cannon-Bard on the other hand states that the emotions come first, i.e. your brain reacts and then your body does it’s flight or fight stuff.

Chicken or egg? A little.

And we still don’t really know the answer. What is accepted is that see bear have a physical reaction is normative. It would seem more holistic to suggest that the two are working in unison, that the amygdala (the reptile base of the human brain responsible for among other things the survival instinct) is programed to kick in both a cognitive response and a physical simultaneously as we need to survive.

What is certain is that I need my senses to recognize danger – however, just to muddy the waters, it appears, from recent experiments that the brain works faster than the physical nervous system. We seem to literally know fear before our body does – giving weight to the Cannon-Bard theory. What we can be absolutely certain of is that we do call that normative reaction an emotional reaction.

And, what has this got to do with Emotional Quotient and Emotional Intelligence?  As we will see EQ and EI are our not only about our emotional reactions, it is rather about our emotional awareness. It is from the combined efforts of Drs William James, Carl Lange, Walter B Cannon and Philip Bard that we developed a working understanding of emotion and the part of the brain that deals with and generates the neurochemical responses to environmental change: the limbic pathway.

The limbic pathway is the part of your brain that deals with emotions. Not just crying, fear, love, happiness, but rather the much more subtle and important stuff: our daily interaction and reactions with people and objects and out thoughts etc; these happen all the time, when we sleep, when we’re awake, and so on. The limbic pathway keeps on working out our emotional, cognitive state.

The Limbic Pathway

It is linked to both the hindbrain (the reptilian brain in humans controlling your most basic physical needs) and the higher brain functions (thought, memory, imagination) and releases dopamine (which makes you calm) and serotonin (which makes you happy).

What we are looking for at first is the correct mix of both of those neurotransmitters, if they are in balance we have emotional homeostasis.

This is a fancy way of saying we are able to be at our most optimal performance wise and keep our stronger emotions in check.

We exhibit one of the key indicators of Emotional Intelligence: self-control. We are calm. Even when driven to distraction, we are calm, self-controlled, and in check. All the time. We use our limbic pathway to keep calm, to assert ourselves without raising our voices, and we are still genuinely in relation to others – we are not artificially calm or stiff, or withdrawn, but neither are we shouting, stamping, and frothing at the mouth.

Such a person is not given to outbursts, or to total withdrawal. They have a mature developed sense of self. Their interaction with others is not based on subversive or agenda-based behaviors like narcissism, self-interest, psychotic manipulation, and so on. Emotional intelligent people are composed, detailed, focused and on point, they are calm, deliberate, but emotionally engaged. They do not sound or act like an automaton, but neither are they manic. Again, it is what we would all instinctively recognize as balanced behaviour.

In a 360° survey we might want to ask:
Does the person control themselves?
When stressed what is their reaction?
To fight? Or withdraw? Or to assert?

Assertive behaviour is more than don’t mess with me you’ll come off worse than me. Assertiveness is the ability to influence and engender respect in the other party. And here, high EI and EQ pay massive dividends. This is more than appearance and body language, it is a fundamental brain set, from the limbic pathway, that will not be rattled, that holds its position, that listens, and states clearly and precisely their position in a calm, measured, and considered way while still using emotions.

This is exceptionally useful for sales personnel who need to exude more than confidence. They need to exude professionalism, knowledge, and a keen self-awareness.

This has top line and bottom line effects.

In Strategic HR we might define this as a good indicator of maturity in young talent. They need to also show real engagement, drive, and results as well.

If the companies goal is to keep talent, and it should be a central HR goal of companies to retain the talented, the best, then helping them achieve early maturity in an excellent idea. This must be aligned with other factors such as motivation, rewards, respect, and inclusion otherwise it will be ineffective.

In the next post, we will look at other components of Emotional Intelligence and how scaling them up in an organization drives business results.

Day Four: Keys To Success And Motivation


Pompidou Center (Flick-r Phil H)

Picking up on Day Three: after Maslow and Carl Rogers and the developments of the Humanistic school pf psychology or the third wave, the idea that emotions can be mastered, controlled, and developed was seen as an integral part of a positive, evolutionary process. This was a fundamental development that gave real results in psychotherapy and to the field of general psychology.

Rogers is a very important historical figure in psychology as he broke the Freudian mold that looks for the problems in the human psyche and rather proved by experimentation and observation, and not just by philosophizing, that all life from plant to animal to human seeks the optimal opportunities for growth if given the environment to thrive. This is of fundamental importance to work psychologists and architects: the work environment, both physical and cultural makes a fundamental difference to the overall performance of the organization. While Maslow tends to concentrate on the fundamental, large blocks, there is ample proof that even simple adjustments in the workplace seem to make a real difference.

This branch of psychology is commonly called Environmental Psychology, but may be called socio-architecture etc; and is concerned with the interaction of people and the space around them. One of the outstanding thinkers in the branch was Konstantinos Doxiades who in 1943 coined the term Ekistics. Ekistics is the study of human settlement. His masterwork “Introduction to Ekistics”, published in 1968, is still an outstanding example of what good research and a clear mind can produce. Oh, and in case we begin to think that this is purely theoretical and impractical Doxiades was also an extremely good architecture on a massive scale and responsible for much of the design of Islamabad. The capital of Pakistan was commissioned by then President Ayub Khan in the 1960s to replace Karachi and to be the model for urban living in a new, modern Pakistan.

Further, there was a fundamental shift in psychology to cognitive psychology.

This is tricky. Initially, it seems that the third wave is on to something of real standing: the human self and how we think about ourselves, and that if we are able to sort that out then we would emerge, almost as butterflies from the pupae, as evolved, stronger people. There is a lot that is entirely positive and right about this, but it also has a negative aspect. Can introspection and the desire to improve ouselves result in achievement or do we need to understand that how we think must be in relation to others around us?

Albert Bandura, working on reciprocal determinism and self-esteem, Vroom working on the Expectancy Theory on motivation, and David McClelland working on understanding the need for achievement and status all provided important new insights in social psychology and solid experimentation that threw light on work and why people succeed or don’t succeed mentally at work.

McClelland in particular. N-Ach, N-Pow, N-Affil, the Need for Achievement, Power, and Affiliation is very good modeling of human behaviour. We all show a combination and spread of all three – and the really important discovery was that too much in any one area leads not to more success but to disaster: the person who must achieve no matter what tends to take undue risk, the one who must control no matter what tends to lack emotional intelligence and is socially manipulative, and the one who has too strong a need for affiliation tends to smother, crowd in, and annoy. Too little and the person simply fails to achieve their goals and others either ride roughshod over them, or simply overtake them. So the question is: how much is enough?

McClelland found throughout his experiments that those who set targets that stretched, challenged, and gave a greater sense of motivation were the succeeders. Those who set targets that were too high or too low failed. Probably the most famous of these utilized the old fairground game of the ring toss. A wooden board with pegs that you toss rope rings onto. People were allowed to set their own degree of difficulty. The key to success was to set it so it was difficult but not impossible: even if these people failed they had a sense that they tried. As a corollary, McClelland also noted that feedback was an essential part of personnel and personal development that allowed people to develop self-awareness and to be able to judge their success in perspective.

The insights for work are obvious Goals should be high but not impossible. Do not employ those who are too ambitious, unless that can be tempered with social skills, emotional intelligence, and structured feedback and coaching. And above all, give reasons for people to want to succeed!

From Wired.com

By Alexis Madrigal



Scientists used a modified version of the n-back test, which is schematized above, to achieve gains in fluid intelligence previously thought impossible. The image shows how users were forced to remember both visual and auditory information streams.
Courtesy Martin Buschkuehl

Brain researchers for the first time claim to have found a method for improving the general problem-solving ability scientists call fluid intelligence, otherwise known as “smarts.”

Fluid intelligence was previously thought to be genetically hard-wired, but the finding suggests that with about 25 minutes of rigorous mental training a day, healthy adults could improve their mental capacities.

The method, if commercialized, could be a boon to the growing, multimillion-dollar market for “brain fitness” software like Nintendo’s Brain Age.

“The most important point of our work is that we can show that it is possible to improve fluid intelligence,” said Martin Buschkuehl, a psychology researcher based at the University of Bern, Switzerland. “It was assumed that fluid intelligence was immutable.”

Fluid intelligence measures how people adapt to new situations and solve problems they’ve never seen before. Fluid intelligence differs from crystallized intelligence, which takes into account skills and knowledge that have been acquired — like vocabulary, grammar and math.

It’s not hard, for example, for students to improve their IQ scores by taking lots of IQ tests.

Trouble is, learning how to take IQ tests doesn’t improve the underlying smarts. The students just get better at taking tests. In practical terms, people can get better at taking tests, but in daily life, don’t have a blazingly quick new brain.

And that’s where Buschkuehl’s research, which appears today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, claims to be groundbreaking.

In a limited trial, he and his team were able to make 34 test subjects significantly better at answering IQ test questions after training them on a completely separate memory task.

David Geary, a professor at the University of Missouri and author of The Origin of Mind, who was not involved with the study, said training in one test generally doesn’t generate gains on a different test.

“Transfer is tough to get,” Geary said. “Training in task A doesn’t typically improve performance on task B.”

But in this case, subjects trained on a complex version of the so-called “n-back task” — a difficult visual/auditory memory test — improved their scores on a set of IQ questions drawn from a German intelligence measure called the Bochumer Matrizen-Test. (The Bochumer Matrizen-Test is a harder version of the well-known Ravens Progressive Matrices).

Initially, the test subjects scored an average of 10 questions correctly on the IQ test.

But after the group trained on the n-back task for 25 minutes a day for 19 days, they averaged 14.7 correct answers, an increase of more than 40 percent. (A control group that was not trained showed only a very slight performance increase.)

Buschkuehl’s team postulates that the n-back task improves working memory — how many pieces of information subjects can keep in their head — as well as the ability to control the brain’s attention. Fluid intelligence tests require those types of thinking, and the training improved performance in these underlying skills.

“These are intriguing results,” Geary said. However, Geary noted that to claim actual increases in fluid intelligence, the subjects would have to show the performance gains over a long-term period — or even permanently.

The Michigan researchers are now engaged in studying the long-term effects of training. They are also working to increase the amount of training that users undergo. In the experiment reported in PNAS, the researchers did not find the upper-limit for improvement, suggesting that more training could yield even better mental performance gains.

“The improvement seems to be dosage dependent,” Buschkuehl said. “We saw a linear increase in performance with increase in training time.”

In the simplest version of the n-back task, a sequence of images is presented every few seconds and subjects are asked to match a picture to an identical one that came previously, say two pictures before it. (For example, in the picture above, the blue square should be in the same location.)

Buschkuehl’s subjects, however, also heard a second stream of letters and had to match the sounds at the same time as they matched the visuals. This makes the task very challenging. And as the subjects got better, the gap between matching pictures and letters got bigger, making the task progressively more difficult.

The team has developed a new n-back computer program called Brain Twister, which they have translated into English, but is not available online.

They do not plan to commercialize the software, but with mental gyms like Vibrant Brains in San Francisco springing up, and brain training software companies like Posit Science drawing big-name investors, you can bet you’ll be seeing the n-back task on sale sooner rather than later.

In fact, revenue from “brain-fitness software” reached $225 million in 2007, according to SharpBrains, a market-research firm.

Neurobehavioral Sciences also offers a 45-day free trial of their neuroscience stimuli program presentation, which is primarily a research tool, and only available for the PC.


You may think that you’re a pretty positive person. But we’re betting no matter how hard you try, you wouldn’t be able to out-happy Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk who’s been nicknamed “the happiest man on earth.”

Seem like a stretch? We’re not just claiming that title based on the fact that Ricard is never seen without a smile, or that monks are generally a pretty beatific bunch – he’s got science on his side, too. In 2004, researchers at University of Wisconsin conducted a study on the brain patterns of hundreds of volunteers from different walks of life. The bell curve of the MRI measurements fell between +0.3 (a Sylvia Plath acolyte, no doubt) to -0.3 (Richard Simmons, perhaps?). But Ricard alone achieved an astonishing score of -0.45 – a level of joy so far above the others that his score was nearly off the chart.

So how did Ricard become the world’s happiest man? The 60-year-old monk didn’t always live a quiet life in the Himalayan mountains – as a young man, he was lauded as one of the world’s most promising biologists. But in 1972, he dropped out of the stressful world of French academia, trading in his laboratory for a monastery in Darjeeling, India, where he studied under Tibetan master Kangyur Rinpoche. In the years since, he has become well known as an author and photographer, and he serves as the Dalai Lama’s personal translator in France. He has devoted his life to the study of Buddhist philosophy and the art of happiness – and he firmly believes that the rest of us can achieve his incredible level of joy, too.

“The mind is malleable,” Ricard told The Independent. “Our life can be greatly transformed by even a minimal change in how we manage our thoughts and perceive and interpret the world. Happiness is a skill. It requires effort and time.”

To fill your life with joy, he said, you must recognize what already makes you happy, and work to change your mental balance. “You have to identify what it is in that situation that makes you happy. It’s as though you’re making a journey, and you look in your rucksack to find it half filled with provisions, half with stones. You need to take out the stones and put in more provisions.”

In his new book, Happiness, Ricard serves as your own personal cross-trainer in the art of happiness, with advice on meditative exercises to increase peace of mind, and his own philosophies on how to fill your life with joy. With his help, you might just be able to tune out your noisy neighbor’s Metallica cover band for a few minutes, and imagine you’re relaxing on a private beach instead. If you can’t make it out to visit a Buddhist monastery any time soon, his book might just be the relief you need.

<a href=http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/191>Here</a> is video of Ricard speaking at the 2004 TED conference.

Bridge, Fog, And Tai Chi - Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Bridge, Fog, And Tai Chi – Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Sedentary people who regularly complain of fatigue can increase their energy levels by 20 percent and decrease their fatigue by 65 percent by engaging in regular, low intensity exercise, according to a new University of Georgia study.

“Too often we believe that a quick workout will leave us worn out – especially when we are already feeling fatigued,” said researcher Tim Puetz, who recently completed his doctorate at UGA and is the lead author of the study. “However, we have shown that regular exercise can actually go a long way in increasing feelings of energy – particularly in sedentary individuals.”

Puetz co-authored the study with professor Patrick O’Connor, co-director of the UGA Exercise Psychology Laboratory, and former UGA student Sara Flowers. The team’s results appear in the February issue of the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.

O’Connor said previous studies – including one that he and Puetz co-authored in 2006 – have shown that exercise can significantly improve energy levels and decrease fatigue. Those studies, however, primarily looked at patients with medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease and mental health problems. In this latest study, the researchers studied volunteers who had fatigue that was persistent yet didn’t meet the criteria for a medical condition such as chronic fatigue syndrome. O’Connor said about 25 percent of the general population experiences such fatigue.

“A lot of people are overworked and not sleeping enough,” O’Connor said. “Exercise is a way for people to feel more energetic. There’s a scientific basis for it, and there are advantages to it compared to things like caffeine and energy drinks.”

The researchers recruited 36 volunteers who did not exercise regularly and had reported persistent fatigue based on a commonly used health survey. The volunteers were divided into three groups: The first engaged in 20 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise three times a week for six weeks; the second engaged in low-intensity aerobic exercise for the same time period; the control group did not exercise.

The low- and moderate-intensity groups had a 20 percent increase in energy levels over the control group. Surprisingly, the low-intensity group had a greater reduction in fatigue levels than the moderate-intensity group, 65 percent compared to 49 percent, respectively.

“It could be that moderate-intensity exercise is too much for people who are already fatigued,” O’Connor said, “and that might contribute to them not getting as great an improvement as they would had they done the low-intensity exercise.”

He adds that energy and fatigue aren’t exactly opposites of each other. A student who stays up late to finish a term paper may feel fatigued, for example, but may also feel energized as she nears the end of the paper.

The volunteers in the study used exercise bikes that allowed the researchers to control their level of exertion so that low-intensity exercise was defined as 40 percent of their peak oxygen consumption and moderate-intensity exercise was defined as 75 percent of peak oxygen consumption. For comparison, O’Connor said a leisurely, easy walk is low-intensity exercise, while a fast-paced walk with hills is moderate-intensity exercise.

The team’s analysis also found that the improvements in energy and fatigue were not related to increases in aerobic fitness that the exercisers experienced. Puetz said the finding suggests that exercise acts directly on the central nervous system to increase energy and reduce fatigue.

“Exercise traditionally has been associated with physical health, but we are quickly learning that exercise has a more holistic effect on the human body and includes effects on psychological health,” Puetz said. “What this means is that in every workout a single step is not just a step closer to a healthier body, but also to a healthier mind.”

Wynton Marsalis - Lincoln Center Orchestra - Photographer: Volume12 - CCFlickr

 Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Jazz Orchestra, De Bijloke, Ghent
Source:  Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A pair of Johns Hopkins and government scientists have discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow.

This keyboard was specially designed for a study to assess brain activity in jazz musicians during improvisation. Because fMRI uses powerful magnets, the researchers designed the unconventional keyboard with no iron-containing metal parts that the magnets could attract.

The joint research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and musician volunteers from the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, sheds light on the creative improvisation that artists and non-artists use in everyday life, the investigators say.

It appears, they conclude, that jazz musicians create their unique improvised riffs by turning off inhibition and turning up creativity.

In a report published Feb. 27 in Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, the scientists from the University’s School of Medicine and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders describe their curiosity about the possible neurological underpinnings of the almost trance-like state jazz artists enter during spontaneous improvisation.

“When jazz musicians improvise, they often play with eyes closed in a distinctive, personal style that transcends traditional rules of melody and rhythm,” says Charles J. Limb, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a trained jazz saxophonist himself. “It’s a remarkable frame of mind,” he adds, “during which, all of a sudden, the musician is generating music that has never been heard, thought, practiced or played before. What comes out is completely spontaneous.”

Though many recent studies have focused on understanding what parts of a person’s brain are active when listening to music, Limb says few have delved into brain activity while music is being spontaneously composed.

Curious about his own “brain on jazz,” he and a colleague, Allen R. Braun, M.D., of NIDCD, devised a plan to view in real time the brain functions of musicians improvising.

For the study, they recruited six trained jazz pianists, three from the Peabody Institute, a music conservatory where Limb holds a joint faculty appointment. Other volunteers learned about the study by word of mouth through the local jazz community.

The researchers designed a special keyboard to allow the pianists to play inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a brain-scanner that illuminates areas of the brain responding to various stimuli, identifying which areas are active while a person is involved in some mental task, for example.

Because fMRI uses powerful magnets, the researchers designed the unconventional keyboard with no iron-containing metal parts that the magnet could attract. They also used fMRI-compatible headphones that would allow musicians to hear the music they generate while they’re playing it.

Each musician first took part in four different exercises designed to separate out the brain activity involved in playing simple memorized piano pieces and activity while improvising their music. While lying in the fMRI machine with the special keyboard propped on their laps, the pianists all began by playing the C-major scale, a well-memorized order of notes that every beginner learns. With the sound of a metronome playing over the headphones, the musicians were instructed to play the scale, making sure that each volunteer played the same notes with the same timing.

In the second exercise, the pianists were asked to improvise in time with the metronome. They were asked to use quarter notes on the C-major scale, but could play any of these notes that they wanted.

Next, the musicians were asked to play an original blues melody that they all memorized in advance, while a recorded jazz quartet that complemented the tune played in the background. In the last exercise, the musicians were told to improvise their own tunes with the same recorded jazz quartet.

Limb and Braun then analyzed the brain scans. Since the brain areas activated during memorized playing are parts that tend to be active during any kind of piano playing, the researchers subtracted those images from ones taken during improvisation. Left only with brain activity unique to improvisation, the scientists saw strikingly similar patterns, regardless of whether the musicians were doing simple improvisation on the C-major scale or playing more complex tunes with the jazz 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. 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.

“Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form. You can figure out which jazz musician is playing because one person’s improvisation sounds only like him or her,” says Limb. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

Limb notes that this type of brain activity may also be present during other types of improvisational behavior that are integral parts of life for artists and non-artists alike. For example, he notes, people are continually improvising words in conversations and improvising solutions to problems on the spot. “Without this type of creativity, humans wouldn’t have advanced as a species. It’s an integral part of who we are,” Limb says.

He and Braun plan to use similar techniques to see whether the improvisational brain activity they identified matches that in other types of artists, such as poets or visual artists, as well as non-artists asked to improvise.

This research was funded by the Division of Intramural Research, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health.

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