Spinning yarns

Originally published earlier this year in Prospect magazine, Tom has put a copy of his fantastic article online where he discusses our capacity for improvisation and how it links with a post-brain damage condition call confabulation where patients seem unable to stop themselves inventing unlikely stories.

Confabulation occurs most typically after frontal lobe damage and causes patients to give clearly false information either spontaneously or when they’re asked a question without any obvious intention to deceive the questioner.

It’s generally thought to be a problem with retrieving memories. The idea is that, initially, remembering activates a whole load of loosely associated information and then a filtering processes narrows it down to only the most relevant and likely memories.

Confabulation is thought to occur when brain damage impairs this filtering process so patients will recount incoherent information because they can’t easily distinguish between likely memories and other the contents of their mind.

Tom discusses how, in healthy people, the strength of this filtering process could be ‘turned down’ to allow theatrical improvisation and instant creativity.

In those patients with frontal damage who do confabulate, however, the brain injury makes them rely on their internal memories—their thoughts and wishes—rather than true memories. This is of course dysfunctional, but it is also creative in some of the ways that make improvisation so funny: producing an odd mix of the mundane and impossible. When a patient who claims to be 20 years old is asked why she looks about 50, she replies that she was pushed into a ditch by her brothers and landed on her face. Asked about his good mood, another patient called Harry explains that the president visited him at his office yesterday. The president wanted to talk politics, but Harry preferred to talk golf. They had a good chat.

Improvisers tap into these same creative powers, but in a controlled way. They learn to cultivate a “dual mind,” part of which doesn’t plan or discriminate and thus unleashes its inventive powers, while the other part maintains a higher level monitoring of the situation, looking out for opportunities to develop the narrative.

In fact, this is in line with work on Jazz musicians that we discussed last year.

This particular study found that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) – a large chunk of the frontal lobes – reduces during Jazz improvisation, suggesting that the mental controls are eased up allowing a more free flowing mental style.

Link to Tom’s Prospect article ‘Tall Stories’.

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