Your Brain on Improv: Hacking Creativity

Charles Limb is a physician, researcher, and one hell of a biohacker. Charles is also a musician, so he used medical-research grade tools to study creativity in the form of musical improvisation.

I highly recommend watching the 16 minute video by Limb, just for the chance to see a distinguished middle-aged suit-wearing physician do a rap about neurology on stage.

Charles used an fMRI – a brain scanner that lets you see detailed pictures of what’s happening in your brain based on how much oxygen different parts use – to see what happens in the brains of creative artists, during solo improvisation and during group improvisation.


Being a doctor gives you access to all kinds of monitoring tools that are out of range for most people, even moderately successful entrepreneurs.  I spent $4,000 out of pocket to get a SPECT brain scan done, but if I had access to an fMRI, I’d be scanning my brain every month or two to look for changes. I’m impressed that Dr. Limb found the time and motivation to do this work.  Tip o’ the biohacker hat, Dr. Limb!

This stuff is directly applicable to entrepreneurs.  Charles is mapping out which parts of your brain are responsible for creativity, and which parts control teamwork. Knowing that gives you the ability to train your brain to do those things better.  His work addresses the hardware – the physical structure of the brain.

In reality, you can already hack creativity very effectively by working on brain “software” or wiring without looking at physical structure. For instance, did you know that SRI (Stanford Research Institute) used a form of brain hacking based on neurofeedback to increase the creativity of their researchers by 50 percent, as measured by a quantitative scale? After the training, the brain boost was equally effective a year later.

I went through the same program that SRI used. In fact, on the last day of the neurohacking program, my “creativity circuits” surged, and I walked out of an EEG session, sat down, and wrote the entire outline and structure of my upcoming book about how to hack a pregnancy to have a much smarter (and healthier) baby. I didn’t have to try to write it – it was like the content just downloaded itself from my brain.

Here’s what Charles found: During improvisation, the self-monitoring part of the brain (lateral prefrontal for you brain hardware hackers out there) deactivated, while the self-expression part of the brain got activated (medial prefrontal). Literally, that means that to be creative.  You have to stop picking on yourself while boosting your self-expression abilities.  That’s a tough skill to learn without direct feedback.

Teamwork was also interesting. “Trading fours” is a team improvisational music performance technique.  It leads to activation of the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca’s area, also responsible for language).  So if you want to be creative with you team, you need to activate that part of your brain.  You can learn to do this more easily if you can track how your brain is actually working.

My brain hacking to date has been focused on hardware (cognitive nutrition + vitamins + smart drugs) and software (EEG, pulsed electrical currents, sounds, meditation, breathing, etc.).  While the SPECT scan was very useful for me to learn where I needed to focus, it wasn’t practical for feedback because it uses radioactive dye and it’s frightfully expensive.




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