Your Brain on Improv: Hacking Creativity

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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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By Dave Asprey

  • Leon

    Hi! Found your site today and working my way through it. Can you provide more info on that SRI program (link??) i had trouble finding it (in the 2 minutes i spent googling it! 😉 )

  • Dave Asprey

    Here is the relevant excerpt about the SRI training:On the first day of alpha training, during alpha enhancement feedback, one of the 7 SRI scientists experienced a Break-Through Insight on a problem in his research. He had been working on this problem for several years. He was so eager to apply his new insight to his research immediately (Elaboration), that he dropped out of training at the end of the first day, leaving only 6 SRI experimental alpha feedback subjects.The first step of data analysis compared experimental and control groups on their Pre-tests to see how well the two groups were matched (significance is p<.05). The two groups were very well matched on all three types of Pre-tests (Creativity, Subjective stress [SOSI], and Physiological stress measures). There were no significant differences between the 2 groups in Pre-test levels of subjective stress [SOSI]; moreover there were no significant differences in Pre-test Ideational Fluency (creativity-of-ideas); there were no significant differences in Pre-test Verbal Fluency, and no significant differences in 4 of the 6 peripheral modalities (EMG frontalis, EMG trapezius, skin temperature, and heart rate). Only EDR and respiration rate showed any differences between the two groups. Initial EDR was higher in the alpha group, but only in the first resting condition of the first session. Respiration rate was slower in the alpha group, but only in the two rest conditions and the auditory startle stress.The second step of data analysis compared experimental and control groups on the Post-tests to detect possible influences of alpha feedback training through changes in creativity of ideas, verbal fluency, subjective stress, and physiological measures of stress.Creativity Results. Creativity scores (Ideational Fluency) in the alpha feedback group increased dramatically after 5 days of alpha training. This increase was highly significant (paired t=5.3057, df=5, p<.004). The control group had no significant changes up or down. Verbal fluency scores (Associational Fluency) for the control group decreased significantly, while the alpha group had a non significant increase.Subjective Stress Results. Stress scores on the SOSI decreased an average of 57.6% for the alpha feedback group after 5 days of alpha training. This change was very highly significant (paired t=6.636, df=5, p<.001). The control group, after just waiting for 5 days, had an average 5% increase in SOSI scores, which was not significant.Physiological Stress Test Results. EDR was selected for analysis, as it discriminated most clearly. The alpha group and the control group showed significantly different EDR reactions after the intervening week, which had alpha training for the alpha group, and no training for the control group. In four different conditions the alpha group showed declines in EDR stress responses, while the control group showed increases. These distinguishing conditions were: Emotional stress (t=2.8037, df=10, p<.02), Auditory Startle stress (t=2.4024, df=10, p<.05), and both of the rest conditions in the stress test, First Rest (t=3.0578, df=10, p<.02), and Final Rest (t=2.8603, df=10, p<.02). (from

  • Hi Dave, big fan of you work. I have to say I’m amazed at the potential for increasing brain creativity by up to 50%. Are there any available publications of the program that SRI used on their researchers, not to mention you using it yourself.?

    • Dave Asprey

      Martindale is the primary creativity/EEG researcher, but the specific SRI stuff was presented in 1993 at the meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Los Angeles, CA.Hardt, J. V., & Gale, R. (1993). “Creativity increases in scientists through Alpha EEG feedback training.”

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