I’ve got a short column for the Seed website on the neuroscience of improvisation. I begin with one of my favorite stories of improv, which is Al Kooper’s organ playing during the studio sessions for “Like A Rolling Stone”:
Al Kooper didn’t know what to play. He’d told some half-truths to get into Bob Dylan’s recording session – the musicians were working on some song tentatively titled “Like A Rolling Stone” – and Kooper had been assigned the Hammond organ. There was only one problem: Kooper didn’t play the organ. He was a guitarist.
The first takes were predictably terrible – Kooper was just trying not to get kicked out of the studio. But on take four, he suddenly found his chords. Kooper’s playing was pure improv – ”I was like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch,” he would later remember – but he ended up inventing one of the most famous organ riffs in modern music.
There is something profoundly mysterious about this kind of creativity. Kooper didn’t have time to think – the chorus was about to happen – and so he just started banging on the ivory keys. This same impromptu process defines some of the most famous creations of modern art, from John Coltrane letting loose on “A Love Supreme,” to Jackson Pollock dripping paint haphazardly on a canvas. These are works made entirely in the moment – their beauty is spontaneous.
But how does such an act of imagination happen? How does the mind create on command? William James described the creative process as a “seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.” In the last year, two separate experiments have attempted to see inside the cauldron, to figure out how a loom of electric cells finds the exact right notes on the upright organ.
On a related note, I just interviewed Dr. Richard Cytowic over at Scientific American about his new book on synesthesia:
LEHRER:In Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, you argue that investigations of synesthesia can help us better understand the neurological basis of metaphor and even creativity. Could you explain?
CYTOWIC: Artists are at ease using metaphors, and we have known for a long time that synesthesia is more common in creative individuals. Famous synesthetes include novelist Vladimir Nabokov, whose mother and son Dmitri also had it; composers Olivier Messiaen, Amy Beech and Billy Joel; and painters David Hockney and Wasily Kandinsky. Dmitri Nabokov, incidentally, wrote a charming afterword about his father and himself for “Indigo Blue.”
There is more to creativity than a capacity for metaphor, of course. Nonetheless, begin with the assumption that the gene for synesthesia lashes together normally unconnected brain areas, thus linking seemingly unrelated qualities such as sound and color. Having one kind of synesthesia gives a person a 50 percent chance of having a second or third kind, meaning that the gene expresses itself in two or three separate areas in that person’s brain. Suppose, however, that brain hyper-connectivity occurred not selectively here and there, but diffusely. One would have a generalized talent for cross connecting apparently unrelated concepts, which is the definition of metaphor: seeing the similar in the dissimilar.
And this is the reason several of us suspect that the synesthesia gene maintains itself at such a high frequency in the population. After all, one in 23 people are walking around with a mutation for an apparently useless trait. It must be doing something of inapparent value in order for evolution to select so strongly in its favor. When the gene expresses itself in sensory parts of the brain, people are outwardly synesthetic. But what are they like when the mutation expresses itself in non-sensory brain parts such as those concerned with memory, planning, or moral reasoning? Might it contribute to increased creativity, thereby making humans smarter as a whole?