What Time Feels Like When You’re Improvising – Heather Berlin – Nautilus

The neurology of flow states


Time may be a property of physics, but it is also a property of the mind, which ultimately makes it a product of the brain.

Your sense of time is malleable and subjective—it changes in response to changing contexts and input, and it can be distorted when the brain is damaged, or affected by drugs, disease, sleep deprivation, or naturally altered states of consciousness.

During what psychologists call “flow states,” where one is completely immersed and absorbed in a mental or physical act, people often report an altered sense of time, place, and self.

Improvisation appears to take place in an altered state of mind.

During musical improvisation, in jazz or freestyle rap, studies show a distinctive increase in medial prefrontal cortex activation. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is a brain area known to be involved in intentional, internally generated self-expression and the pursuit of goal-oriented behaviors. This makes sense, since improvised performance requires you to come up with new material in a rapid stream, and deploy it just as quickly for a listening or watching audience. The other aspect to this pattern is a decrease in lateral orbitofrontal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activation (DLPFC). The lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are brain areas involved in conscious self-monitoring, effortful problem solving, focused attention, and evaluation and regulation of goal-directed or planned behaviors. These lateral areas assess whether behaviors conform to social norms, and exert inhibitory control over inappropriate or maladaptive behavior. But as any skilled performer will tell you, inhibitions are the enemy of improvisation.