Who’s your Julia Child?

Earlier this week I downloaded the podcast of a recent interview between Dave Davies, guest host of NPR’s Fresh Air, and Jonah Lehrer, author of the just released book Imagine: How Creativity Works. And I found the excerpt below especially relevant to the present leg of my journey.

DAVIES: You also write about improvisation. You talk about watching Yo-Yo Ma interpret and perform a piece, and also improvisational comics. There’s something in common here. What’s going on neurologically in this kind of creativity?

LEHRER: So this is very interesting work done at Johns Hopkins, where what they did was they actually put jazz pianists in an FMRI machine and they had them first play a melody they’d memorize in advance and they had them play an improvised melody. And what they discovered is that before the improv began, these expert jazz pianists turned off a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, it’s just behind your forehead. And there’s a sharp drop of activity in this brain area. And this is a part of the brain which is closely associated with impulse control. So it keeps us from saying stupid stuff, it keeps us from eating too much chocolate cake, from shoplifting, it allows us to act like mature adults, in other words. And yet what these, you know, improvisational artists, what these spontaneous performers were able to do is when the situation demanded it, they could just silence it. They could inhibit their inhibitions on command, and that allowed them to create without worrying about what they’re creating. 

Jonah Lehrer. Click to get an even better view.

And the thing, when you’re in the improv business, that’s a big part of what the job is all about. It’s about learning how to let yourself go, learning how to play like a little kid without worrying about making the, you know, playing the wrong note or drawing outside the box. You’re just interested in the process of creation. And when I got to spend some time at Second City, you know, the famous improv club and school, and you watch these performers warm up, you realize that they actually call it getting out of your head. They called their warm-up exercise now we’re going to get out of our heads. And they’d do stuff like they walk around in circles making flatulent noises, so farting sounds. And they’ll have a five-minute confessional, where they’ve got to say something really embarrassing without thinking about just how embarrassing it is. And so all their warm-up exercises are really about learning how to turn off that part of the brain, to learning how to let themselves go.

DAVIES: And how does that work with Yo-Yo Ma? What does he do that’s distinct and that involves sort of shutting off those inhibitions?

LEHRER: Well, I think for Yo-Yo, it really is about learning how to relax. So he told me this great story about before he goes out on stage, he often thinks about Julia Child. And at first I was, why Julia Child? And he tells this wonderful story about the great thing about Julia Child is, you know, she’d be making a roast chicken and it looked beautiful and then she’d be talking to the camera and the chicken would just fall off the plate, fall onto the floor. And he said, did she make this look of horror? Did she scream? No, no, she – smile never left her face. She picked up the chicken, dusted it off and just went on with the show. And he says that’s an inspiring story to think about when you’re in the midst of performance, because you’re going to make a mistake and your attitude has to be, I welcome that first mistake because now I’m free.

And it’s that attitude, that lesson of Julia Child which I think allows him to create and emote and play beautiful sounds, and very complicated sounds, without worrying too much about playing the wrong note, about making a mistake, because if you’re too worried about that, you’re going to be paralyzed. You won’t be able to fully express the emotions you need to express.

Who’s your Julia Child?