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Tell Me about Yourself: The Power of Curiosity

In a fascinating recent study, neuroscientists (one of whom is a jazz saxophonist) at Johns Hopkins University hooked up jazz musicians to an MRI machine and recorded their brain activity while they played. They discovered that the part of the brain used when musicians improvise is the same part we all use when we respond to the request “Tell me about yourself.” Specifically, the medial prefrontal cortex area of the brain lights up when we improvise while speaking and problem solving, and when we’re dreaming.

They also found that during jazz improvisation, the part of the brain used for planning and self-censoring (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) shuts off. They concluded that during such brain activity “you are sculpting your own identity [and finding] the voice you’re going to use.” This makes sense because by cutting out the critic, we find it easier to experiment with different ways of being.

These findings strongly support my contention that there is an improvisational, jazz-like quality to open-minded inquiry and talk between friends, along with a kind of magical personality change that occurs because of it. When someone asks about us and shows genuine interest, we feel free to not only share ourselves, but also react to life in a more open, spontaneous manner.

Expressing curiosity can promote feelings of trust and safety that, in turn, promote authentic interactions and lasting relationships. In last weekend’s Parade magazine, a reader wondered if actor Chris Cooper and actress Marianne Leone were happily married. He responded, “Our [25-year] marriage has avoided falling flat. We respect each other’s space and still are curious about each other.”

Being Witnessed
A good friend of mine believes that one definition of friendship is the sense that each of our caring friends has the power to witness and validate what we do, giving our lives meaning. I agree to a great extent. (My only minor caveat is that we need to avoid relying too heavily on what others think. We need to be able to self-reinforce and determine the rightness of our own pursuits and accomplishments.)

As a former full-time musician, I’ve experienced many improvisational jazz interactions, and I can verify that after taking part in a jazz dialogue, I do feel the sense of having been “witnessed” by the other musicians. The musical exchange and degree of interpersonal musical inquiry is so immediate and powerful that I feel emotionally exposed before my colleagues, and at the same time, I feel validated by them.

It is important then to remember how we can positively affect our friends when we ask about them. We free them to improvise their response and to clarify what they are about, and we confirm their way of being in the world. And now, science has the brain scans to prove it.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   


Comment from Dr. Carducci
Time: March 29, 2008, 5:55 pm

Doug Ramsey posted a piece about the study on his blog, Rifftides. Here’s the link:

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