Writers are familiar with the Editorial Voice. It’s the part of your mind that urges you to stop and rewrite what you just jotted down, the part that insists you’ve wasted the last hour, that nobody will like what you’re writing and that it’s a complete waste of time. At best its an annoyance, at the worst it can be crippling.

A recent study conducted on jazz musicians has revealed some fascinating insights into what’s going when the Editorial Voice is harping away, and on the human creative process in general. A handful of trained jazz musicians were asked to play four different pieces of music while their brains were scanned. The first piece was a simple scale, and the second was the same scale with an allowance for improvisation. The third was a complex jazz piece that they had to play exactly as they had learned it while listening to a jazz quartet over the headphones, and the last was the same jazz quartet but with the musicians given full license to improvise as they wished.

The scans revealed that certain parts of the brain activated or grew busier while improvising, while others seemed to dampen or shut down. Curiously, the limited improvisation on the scales and the full blown thing produced the same effect; thus its not the complexity of the creative endeavor that matters but rather the engagement of the creative faculties in the first place.

From the article:

Moreover, the researchers found that much of the change between improvisation and memorization occurred in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the frontal lobe of the brain that helps us think and problem-solve and that provides a sense of self. Interestingly, the large portion responsible for monitoring one’s performance (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) shuts down completely during improvisation, while the much smaller, centrally located region at the foremost part of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex) increases in activity. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in self-initiated thoughts and behaviors, and is very active when a person describes an event that has happened to him or makes up a story. The researchers explain that, just as over-thinking a jump shot can cause a basketball player to fall out of the zone and perform poorly, the suppression of inhibitory, self-monitoring brain mechanisms helps to promote the free flow of novel ideas and impulses. While this brain pattern is unusual, it resembles the pattern seen in people when they are dreaming.

Another unusual finding was that there was increased neural activity in each of the sensory areas during improvisation, including those responsible for touch, hearing and vision, despite the fact that there were no significant differences in what individuals were hearing, touching and seeing during both memorized and improvised conditions. “It’s almost as if the brain ramps up its sensorimotor processing in order to be in a creative state,” said Limb. The systems that regulate emotion were also engaged during improvisation.

“One important thing we can conclude from this study is that there is no single creative area of the brain—no focal activation of a single area,” said Braun. “Rather, when you move from either of the control tasks to improvisation, you see a strong and consistent pattern of activity throughout the brain that enables creativity.”