How is it that some people are able to be creative on command, while other people find it so challenging to come up with new ideas?
It is partially down to how much those people self-censor.
Take for example the skill of improvisation, where an individual performs something spontaneous in front of a crowd which has never existed before. Many neuroscientists have tried to find out what changes in the brain when someone is able to improvise successfully, which would indicate that this is one brain region involved in certain creative processes.
Two studies which successfully found evidence are a study of Jazz piano improvisation and freestyle rap improvisation, where the improvisers were put in a brain scanner and first asked to perform memorised pieces, then also begin improvising.
The researchers were then able to compare the brain activation patterns between the two styles of performing, and statistically analyse the brain images to find out what had changed.
The results were fascinating.
Both studies found that a particular region of the brain was becoming less active when people improvised, which was the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC), which is one of the most highly-evolved parts of the prefrontal cortex and is right behind your forehead.
But why would a part of the brain become less active when someone is being more creative?
Well, one of the main functions of the DLPFC is inhibition of conscious thoughts. This means that it acts as a sort of filter to prevent you doing something unexpected or risky.
A good analogy is that the DLPFC is part of the brain working hard to prevent “oh crap” moments, like filtering everything you think before you say it when at a job interview, or meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time.
When it is highly active, the DLPFC will therefore prevent certain subconscious thoughts from coming into your awareness, and also slow down the speed of your actions by trying to test things before you act on them.
Another interesting aspect is that this part of the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence and doesn’t mature until early adulthood, which may be why children become more self-critical and fearful as they become teenagers and young adults, and at the same time seem to have a reduction in their creativity.
So what these studies suggest is that since this highly evolved part of the brain becomes less active when successful improvisers get into a flow state, those performers are not censoring themselves in those moments as much.
Creativity requires a degree of freedom in the moment, of disinhibition and not worrying too much about outcomes before they happen.
What I also love about this research is that it shows that if people can change their thought patterns to be less self-critical and self-censoring, then they can also become more comfortable improvising and become more creative.
An example of how our nurture (our upbringing and training) can change our creativity. And how further training and effort can improve it.
So the next time you think “I wish I could improvise like that person”, remember that you can, if you just let yourself and are a little less self-critical.