Your Brain’s Secret to Freestyling


[ intro ] Have you ever seen a performance that just
blew your mind? Like when, mid-song, the guitarist just goes completely nuts and pulls this god-like solo seemingly out
of nowhere? You may think that musicians who are awesome
at improvising are just inexplicably gifted. Like they’re some supernaturally talented
genius. But psychological studies tell us that actually, what really makes for a good improviser isn’t
some innate genius. Aside from a whole lot of practice, you need to be able to switch your brain off. Common wisdom may tell you that when someone’s
improvising up a storm, their brain is probably on fire. Like in their brain they’re planning the
next section, or figuring out how to plug in this thing
they thought of yesterday, or trying not to mess the whole thing up. But actually, the opposite is true. Some musicians, such as jazz players, often describe improv as this otherworldly
experience. The rhythms and notes just burst forth from
their instruments way faster than they’re capable of processing
what they’ve just done. It’s like it comes from somewhere else, and just flows right through their fingers. It seems pretty counterintuitive that such
detailed, finessed improvs could be so effortless for
some musicians to produce. But research on the brain can show us why
this might be the case. A study published in 2008 using functional magnetic resonance imaging,
or fMRI, looked at the brain activity of six professional
jazz musicians — first while they played scales, and then while they improvised simple melodies
on a keyboard. This keyboard had to be specially made out
of non-magnetic materials, since the magnetic fields used in MRI imaging
are really, really strong. Like, things-will-fly-out-of-your-pockets-if-you’re-in-the-same-room-as-them
strong. And as if that didn’t make this experiment
awkward enough, musicians then had to play lying down in the
scanner’s tight little tube. But somehow, it all worked out. Afterward, researchers analyzed the scans
and compared the brain activities during the two tasks. And they found that while improvising, there were two very distinct changes. First, the medial prefrontal cortex became
active. Like other parts of the prefrontal cortex, this area of the brain gets involved in lots
of activities, including decision-making and memory retrieval. And researchers believe that increased activity
in this region encourages idea generation. It ramps up creativity and helps soloists
come up with new directions to take the music. But that wasn’t the only thing going on
in the scans. At the same time, activity in the brain’s lateral prefrontal
regions had decreased. These regions are responsible for monitoring
and correcting your behavior. For example, the might be checking for mistakes and judging
how enjoyable the performance is. Meanwhile, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
is especially active when you’re monitoring your actions, or putting real effort into problem-solving. But while you’re improvising, these parts
of your brain basically shut down. At first this might sound kind of weird. The ability to monitor your behavior seems
pretty important when you’re on stage in front of a crowd. So why would these areas get quieter when
you’re jamming out? The researchers suggest that this shutdown may allow musicians to mellow out a little. They stop monitoring themselves so harshly and just let the music come out of them without being too critical of how it sounds. And it’s not just jazz musicians that show
these patterns. A similar study looking at brain activity
in freestyle rappers showed exactly the same patterns of activity. It seems like, with their brains in this state, musicians and rappers are able to just trust
their instincts, take risks, and go with the flow. And ‘flow’, or ‘flow state’, is what
psychologists call being in the zone. Psychologists who have studied musical improvisation suggest that flow is really important to a
good jam session. Of course, it’s not the only thing at play. You have to be able to like, play the instrument
before you can improvise. But when you’re in a flow state, you lose a sense of yourself, time flies by, and every action you take just seems to follow
naturally from the last one. Like you don’t even have to think you just do. In fact, the same patterns of activity we
see in improvising musicians also show up during REM sleep— the phase of sleep that lets us dream. That’s right! The same parts of your brain that gave you
that one weird dream about boogie-boarding with Kanye are also responsible for boosting your creativity
while you’re awake. Which kind of makes sense, right? Dreaming is all about strange, unplanned associations
and a lack of control. So it’s easy to see why those same traits, produced by those same brain areas, produce
that same feeling of otherworldly inspiration that musicians
report while they improvise. The skills of improvising soloists are impressive,
for sure. But it’s probably not just some innate genius that’s letting them kill it on stage. The ability to get in the zone is available
to pretty much all of us. And with a little practice, maybe you can quiet down your prefrontal cortex
and harness it too. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Psych! If you liked learning about how your brain
influences your musicality, you might be interested in this episode about
how music also influences your brain… no matter how musical you are! [ outro ]

100 thoughts on “Your Brain’s Secret to Freestyling

  1. Can the lack of freestyling capability be used as an actual disability to allow me and the bois to dodge the WWIII draft?

  2. As an improv pianist, This is pretty spot on. The whole shutting your brain off part is what’s so therapeutic. You can let yourself feel complex feelings without any negative thoughts about them. And usually the more you're feeling in that state, the better you sound.

  3. So, what does give the signals the right signals? I mean, our prefrontal cortex doesn't, but what part does?

  4. My Cocksteil, (The Late Great Romeo) Would do that with a wolf whistle, like add and soar for a half hour sometimes.I doubt he thought deeply about it.

  5. As a improvisor (comedy)and performer, I always felt improv, as in creativity, is a "spiritual"practice, which is what I found that Taoist call, WuWei, effortless action. To be in the moment without any attached outcome, just trust the moment. Great video!

  6. When I do solo improv theatre (aka Fooling), during my best solos, I feel like I'm becoming just a spectator of my own actions. Maybe sometimes nudging or suggesting something to myself. But mostly just watching myself riffing off of my own actions and words and the audience's reaction. Pretty otherworldly experience.

  7. This also applies to dancing!! I've played a few instruments, and this freestyle/flow state feeling is exactly the same in freestyle dance.

  8. I could never catch a ball or even a frisbee until a friend told me he was going to toss me some beanbags and I shouldn't try to catch them. "Just watch them," he said. "Keep your eye on them. But don't catch them." To my astonishment, my hand reached out and snagged them without my even thinking about it. My LEFT hand. And I'm right handed. Now I'm experimenting with tunes I know on instruments I don't, and vice versa. If I try to figure out what I'm doing, forget it. If I don't think, but just listen, my ears and fingers get it much faster. They're self correcting in a way my Thinker isn't!

  9. So, I get this is mostly about instruments, but I had a dream I could freestyle rap. I was actually good! Note, I can’t do this when I’m awake. But I killed it in my sleep, could this be the same thing?

    Edit: Wasn’t far enough to see the rapper part of the video when I posted this lol

    Edit: Oh, just got to the dream part. I should have watched the whole video before I commented.😂🤦🏼‍♂️

  10. From experience with multiple instruments, it is a matter of a cluster and mash of repetition of various exercises. We are subject to our experiences. If we are fluent in our basics and various exercises, we can mix and match them together with muscle memory and raw emotion.

  11. SciShow: To "flow" and be less critical, shut off your brain
    Keith Jarrett at The Köln concert: Am I a joke to you?!

  12. The description of how musicians jam is how I have always felt when writing poetry or fiction pieces. I have never before been able to adequatly explain what it feels like. You nailed it!

  13. I also noticed that when I dream I'm much less critical about myself. Like I'd say something in my dreams that I find hilarious and I'm thinking "I have to wake up and write this down, it's so funny".
    And then when I wake up I realise that it was actually not really funny 🙁

  14. Isn't this the same thing that happens for example when you're driving and you zone out and when you come to you realize that you've been driving as if on autopilot. You weren't thinking of driving and all the rules that come with it, you just drove.
    Or the same as playing a very difficult fast reaction skill-based game, where as long as you're thinking about what inputs and moves you want to perform you struggle, but as soon as you get in the mentioned flow state or 'the zone' it becomes second nature and you're able to clear difficult sections without even thinking about it.

  15. I wonder if Hank slowed down his speech based on some studies or not. It seems that watching at 1.5x speed sounds like the old videos.

  16. I used to do this when I wrote short stories. I have no idea what I'm writing but the pencil flies across the paper

  17. When I used to describe how I freestyle rap I used to struggle to convey how little I knew what I was going to say other than it was like opening a tap that let out an effortless flow, the hard part was learning how to open the tap.

  18. People: Wow this describes creative [insert activity] so well!!

    Me: With the power of science, anything is possible

  19. It is like speaking. We basically play like we speak. No one form a sentence in their mind before speaking. We have an idea and we express it.

  20. Hmmm…
    "Stop thinking." Check.
    "Let your body parts move on their own" to create new sequences of musical notes. Check.
    Trust your "instincts", take risks, and go with the flow. Check.

    There's no doubt about it. This must be Ultra Instinct from Dragon Ball Super.

  21. That's like when I speak Spanish! I speak it best when I either have tonnes of energy or when I'm ill, because I totally forget to be nervous and over correct what I say

  22. kinda meshes with my xps trying to record an improv? turn on that microphone and that pfc can't shut up I guess, making it hard to play and get in the flow

  23. For me, im following my friends in a jam session and finding what world i want the song to convey. I am the singer. Although when i dont sing words, i find myself doing some more out their vocal inspirations. That's why i also enjoy singing jibberish when im not in a mode to storytell.

  24. Our sense of hearing is perceived faster than touch, so the sounds are processed before we physically know how to move our fingers- creating this intuitive knowledge to guide our Musial movements with

  25. This must apply to writing as well. Raymond Chandler, that famous detective writer, knew this. "The more you reason the less you create."

  26. Yes, this is why I will never be a professional performer even though I play a lot of instruments and love music to death. If there's anyone listening, I instantly start making mistakes and thinking about thinking about thinking about not making mistakes.

  27. I certainly feel this when I'm on stage. The vocal runs that fly out of my mouth freak me out a lot when I go with the flow.

  28. I really feel weird for relating so ahrd to this since I don't even play instruments
    I play rhythm games 8)

    But going ultra instinct is activity agnostic
    Works for playing music, osu(apparently), even correcting math homework

  29. I'm a software developer, and after 17 years of development, I also sometimes get into a flow state while programming. But at the same time, programming is all about problem-solving. I'm interested to know what that means about my brain in those moments, since it would need that deep, analyzing problem-solving to stay on, but it's still flow as though it's off.

  30. 1:32 see, this is why Mary Lou Jepsen’s portable OpenWater MRI needs to finally finish its development… we could get SOooo much more data if these things weren’t so impractical!!!

  31. When you get a great improvised solo, it just seems to make sense. You know the shapes of different solos you've played before, scales and what not, so it's just instinctive. I've found it's way easier to make up a shredderific solo than it is to write some basic chords that sound interesting together – idk, improv is just weird I guess!

  32. I'm a classical musician, and I've asked many Jazz musicians about how they improvise.
    It's a whole lot of practice, to the point where everything is muscle-memory in performance. They work on all their scales and arpeggios all the time, and practice moving between different chord progressions. Some players memorize the exact passages played in recordings by the great players of the past. The best improvisers that I know have told me that a lot of thought goes into practice, and in performance they just let the muscle-memory take over.

    So the answer is always PRACTICE

  33. Been drumming for 25 years. Flow state is indeed otherworldly. My flesh sack of a body creates the best music I've ever had the honor to make… all the while my mind remains silent and is just along for the wild ride, more witness than actor.

  34. Interesting. I am a musician and I can improvise in any key and use various techniques. I think I agree with what Hank said. I just play.

  35. Also true in sports. My best games, I was feeling like I was spectating to a certain extent. Otherwise, I kept second guessing myself all the time. The feeling of actions just flowing together also spot on.

  36. I'm a singer/songwriter/guitarist and I experience this all the time while writing songs. I get so deep into flow so often that for years I've known that before I get started, I HAVE to turn on my recording app. I know there's a huge chance I'll come up with something great that I absolutely love but won't remember it when I stop playing or even realize exactly what I've done. Once I stop going, I play back what I've recorded and pick out the best parts. Coming up with something at random and not having recorded it is incredibly frustrating because I know I'll probably never replicate it.

  37. "Satori", "Channeling" and "Being in the zone" are common words to this idea.
    In the poem The Wayfarer, Kahlil Gibran spoke of "also listening while speaking truth" to the people of his adopted land.
    Scuba diving over colorful reefs would instantly throw me deeply into this state of mind.

  38. I'm a semi-proficient drummer of 10 years with a lot of dedication and little natural talent. I've been trying to turn off my prefrontal cortex while playing for years; I just didn't know how to explain it until now. ;o)

  39. my boyfriend is a footballer, and he was telling me about this impossible goal he once did tackling through a bunch of people. it was amazing, everybody told him. and he had no idea about it because as he says, he could not see anybody or anything else, not even the players on the field. his knowledge of the goal is solely anecdotal from friends and the coach. and he loves football (a little too much, im jelly) so i think this happens in sports, or certain sports, too

  40. It's the same way we talk, when you're talking in a relaxed manner or ranting on something you are not really thinking. You letting all your past thoughts flow out. It's all done in practice. As in before the freestyle performance. A conglomeration of practiced ideas, movements etc

  41. Watch out for the music based animes lol "wow! He's playing the notes faster than the brain can process them!"

  42. I mentioned this in the previous video about flow, but I feel exactly this way when playing Rocket League. I love it when I get into a flow state and improvise some crazy stuff.

  43. Think about what music makes you feel. Now imagine your brain slowly building up a database of what melodies and tones cause those feelings. Then imagine your subconscious developing the ability to synthesize melodies based upon your preferences and known music.

  44. Not to mention the connection between knowing certain patterns on a keyboard when you type and improvising solos is straightforward. You randomly string short patterns together you know from playing over and over in previous songs and it sounds good because it has a tinge of familiarity

  45. Whenever I get in a public speaking roll I feel this way. Whenever I have to present at work I find that I get into the flow state and tend to say unplanned things that somehow still sound really great. It's like if I know what I'm talking about I'll say things I never considered on a topic before I even think about it and so far it usually works out really well

  46. The thing is experience: the more songs you play, the more chords and chord progressions you're familiar with, and the more technique you build with your instrument, the more you're able to just let go and improvise.

  47. 3:40 musicians and rappers XD
    it's first year in music collage again. "Two musicians and a drummer walk into a bar" except now rappers are kicked out lol

  48. As a former musician jazz and otherwise, this is 100%. I could never remember let alone recreate any improv solo. You stop thinking and overthinking and preparing for the next thing and just DO. And when the improv is over, you go back to reading the music and thinking and planning and preparing again

  49. Do this sorta stuff when playing games. 😛 Like a hard boss where while you're not really trying that hard you do the best.

  50. Pro Tip: play music while on the toilet. If it works for toddlers singing on the loo it can work for adults to. All the best performers on stage just wear diapers. I know, its amazing but true.

  51. I do improvise, but I feel like this video discredits the improvisers , as if only the "brain" does it without effort. Your style is very personal and directed by you, not just a shutting off of the brain and the brain going in cruise control, or at worst turning off. Improvisation is very much directed by the individual.

  52. i've experienced flow in high stress situations on certain games. Most recently on Apex legends. Multiple times i've gone into "flow", stayed calm, and destroyed my enemy. All without thinking a single thing.

  53. I do that in language tests all the time.

    I'll start out with well structured sentences and finely sculpted phrases,
    realise that time is running out,
    panic,
    start free styling at mach speed (in the process, amazing myself),
    finish it off with another well thought out catchphrase.

    Preparing for such tests were terrifying. If I can't get into the 'zone', I fail. It was a single point of failure. With no way to prepare.

    PS. this technique is absolutely useless in theoretical subjects.

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