I just viewed a most interesting TED Talk by Dr. Charles Limb, a surgeon and a musician who researches the way musical creativity works in the brain.  Watch this TED clip if you are fascinated by the question, what is the connection between neurological functioning and the creative process?

Dr. Limb is studying what parts of the brain are active during a creative process like improvisation versus more routine tasks completed through memorization.  Very fascinating stuff!

In the beginning of his talk, he references Keith Jarrett, a jazz pianist who is famous for improvising music.  I have been a fan of Keith Jarrett since I was a student in college.  His improvisational piano music is very inspiring and magical.  Take a listen to one of his mesmerizing pieces from his Koln Concert (about 9 minutes) in 2009.  I hope you will agree that what is going on in Keith Jarrett’s brain to accomplish such a feat must be truly amazing.

At the Center for Teaching, we have a faculty cohort of six Westminster teachers and five Drew Charter teachers who are engaged in studying the brain and learning.  They are reading the text by David Sousa, How the Brain Learns.  The group is facilitated by Jill Gough, a math teacher from Westminster, and Donya Kemp, the technology coordinator from Drew Charter School.   Most of their work has focused on what brain research is telling us about how students learn.  Cohort members have been implementing some of the Practioners Corners at the end of each chapter.   I think they are learning that teachers need to become intentional in designing lessons that tap into a student’s creative process.  Dr. Limb’s early work with the brain and improvisative should prompt educators to think seriously about how our curriculum, pedagogy, and assessments allow students to be creative and improvise with the content we expect them to learn.

Here are the questions Dr. Limb posed at the end of his talk.

Dr. Limb's questions at the end of his TED talk.


What do you think about the possibilities of Dr. Limb’s research and how we think about the 21st Century classroom?

2 comments on “The Brain and Improv

  1. As a neuropsychologist who has used functional MRI in my own research for many years now, this was a fun talk to listen to. Thank you for posting it. I have to be honest, the old-time, constantly questioning scientist in me was looking for places to punch holes in the data. Fortunately, student in me took over and I let myself LISTEN to the talk. How refreshing that felt. I think the idea of allowing part of your brain to “shut off” to be creative is very interesting. He says that you need to shut off the part of your brain that inhibits you… the part that would be “self-censoring.” I’ll say this: we see people after stroke (those who RECOVER language vs. those who don’t) show similar kinds of shifts in brain activity. And, we see older adults (those with intact cognition) show similar kinds of responses (compared to older adults who don’t do well on cognitive tasks). So, finding a way to help our students be “less censored” in their pursuit of knowledge, I believe, has a very strong neuroanatomic basis. What I don’t know is: will activating the visual cortex (as in rap), the language cortex (as in jazz improv) lead to creativity or is it the act of being creative that “turns on” these areas? That part, I don’t know. I will say, I think that finding ways to encourage “the question” vs. “the answer” has to be part of this enhancement of the “creative” process. I think musicians are not hampered by the fear of playing the “wrong” note or rapping “incorrectly.” Maybe that “surrender” that comes with immersion into beautiful art you believe in (be it music, visual, or otherwise) is what allows the “self-censoring” to quiet itself. How do we cultivate a classroom that does something similar?


    • Anna:

      I really enjoyed reading your response to my blog entry. Clearly, well informed and insightful. I am delighted that you “watched” the TED talk and took it in. As a former scientist/science teacher, I too had to check my research science attitude at the door. I wanted to absord the mixture of science and creativity in his talk and work. I also hope you were able to listen to the Keith Jarrett piece. As I listen to his work, I gain greater appreciation for what Limb is trying to convey. Good stuff and thanks for taking the time to read and reflect on this.



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