• Robb G. Best

Zen and the Art of Riffing

Q: What did the Zen master say to the hotdog vendor?

A: “Make me one with everything...”

Central to the premise of this old joke is the Zen notion of reaching a higher level of consciousness, where one’s sense of self dissipates, becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the universe. This is pretty heady stuff for many raised in the western thought tradition, where metrics are king, and we’re taught from a young age that if it can't be measured, it doesn't exist.

So what do jazz players and Zen masters have in common?

I’m sure there’s a pun in here somewhere, but the truth is, they may share a lot, according to Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb.

Around 2008, Limb began doing experiments with jazz pianists, trying to understand what was happening in their brains during musical improvisation. Limb had them improvise music while lying in an fMRI; the tool of choice for many neuroscientists. It’s a machine that measures blood flow to a given brain area. Increased blood flow suggests activity, and so the current thought is that the fMRI is the best window we have into what the brain is up to at a given moment.

Limb observed that when a jazz player got into the groove of an improv (in other words, when they reached something like Csikszentmihalyi’s flow), blood flow seemed to decrease in an area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (or dorsolateral PFC), and increase in the medial prefrontal cortex.

The dorsolateral PFC is where your inner critic resides. It helps to control your impulses, monitor behavior, and analyze your actions.

Another area of the brain that helps keep tabs on you is the superior frontal gyrus, or SFG. It's responsible for self awareness. Your inhibitions serve the purpose of keeping you from acting in ways that might otherwise get you in trouble. Essentially, your “good angel” doesn’t sit on your shoulder like in the cartoons; it lives in your brain's SFG.

In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, author Steven Kotler cites a 2006 Israeli study that says when people are deeply immersed in a task, from sex to playing cards to climbing a mountain, their superior frontal gyrus begins to deactivate.

Balancing your dorsolateral PFC and SFG, your medial PFC is home to self expression. This part of the brain fosters a sort of ungoverned creativity, where rules are more like general guidelines, and impulse and action rule supreme.

So in theory, Kotler says, as the dorsolateral PFC and SFG quiet down and the medial PFC ramps up, there is a trade-off: less energy for analytical cognition and more energy for concentration and focus. In other words, less thinking, more doing.

Concentration and focus is at the heart of flow state. Without scrutiny, action becomes spontaneous and in the moment.

Is there a word to describe the ramping down of the dorsolateral PFC as cognition takes a backseat to instinct? Yes: hypofrontality. Another way to put it is that loss of your sense of self. It's when the jazz player has the sense of being one with that piano or horn, a single entity from which the music seems to spring forth.

This is the essential definition of the flow state, where a cocktail of neurochemicals acts like a temporary SWAT team, invading your brain and taking control. Norepinephrine increases blood flow and focus. Dopamine generates an increase in connections. Endorphins kick in to minimize pain and promote a euphoric feeling, while Anandamide promotes lateral thinking.

Anandamide may be the least well-known of these chemicals, but it’s certainly not the least important. Lateral thinking is what allows your brain to draw unusual connections and reach surprising ideas. It’s a basic tenant of any improv; or at least, any improv that’s interesting to watch.

The end result is a flow state of altered consciousness. It’s taken western science and the fMRI to finally catch up, measure and confirm what Zen masters and jazz players already experientially understood for years.

Apparently 'make me one with everything' has implications far beyond the hotdog stand.


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