Hannah Merseal – Improvisation is creativity at its peak.
To make mistakes, take chances, trust in one’s creative ability, and do something completely unplanned. This is what makes life worth living – its unpredictability. For Hannah Merseal, the recipient of the first-ever Sonophilia Foundation Summer Scholarship for Outstanding Young Scientists in Creativity Research, the study of improvisation, particularly in musical composition, is the heart and soul of her research focus.
As a neuroscience and creativity scholar at Roger Beaty’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab at Penn State University, Hannah studies the cognitive mechanisms and neuroimaging methods of music production and cognition. Having recently concluded the second year of her PhD program at Penn State, and with a BA in music and psychology from Wheaton College, she explores how improvising jazz musicians can integrate complex cognitive processes, like memory retrieval, motor planning, idea evaluation, and coordination with other players on the stage during a performance.
“Improvisation is really like creativity at its peak,” Hannah told Sonophilia. “I think what sets this apart from other domains of creativity research is that this is all happening in real-time. In areas like writing or the visual arts, a person can go back and edit their ideas, but in improvisation, the audience is right there. There’s no time to change your mind because the processes of idea generation and evaluation are happening simultaneously.”
Both a clarinetist and vocalist, Hannah has either been an actively playing musician or an avid listener most of her life. Her exposure to jazz came early on through listening to the greats like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. She credited her high school band instructor with her first introduction to the art of improvisation.
“It was something that I just thought felt very magical, and it’s something that stuck with me at Wheaton College. I led a jazz-funk band with some of my best friends and my senior honors thesis was a composition for our orchestra that featured some improvisational elements.”
The study of musical improvisation is a complex puzzle, one which Hannah says can be conceptualized into three main pieces: how improvisers learn musical sequences during a performance, what this library of sequences looks like in the brain, and how improvisers reference and reorganize these sequences during performance and production. Hannah explained how improvising musicians can identify music differently from a classical musician or someone who merely listens for pleasure. Rather than simply play a scale, they’ll break them down into smaller patterns and chunks, much like we do with language.
“In language, we study the associations between words and concepts as a semantic network,” she said. “A study that we’re currently writing up found that we can conceptualize musical information also as a network, which opens up a whole world of possibilities for comparisons between improvised sequences and language. It allows us to ask about the differences between classical musicians and jazz musicians in what this network looks like. In creativity research in language, semantic networks have been found to be different between creative and less creative individuals, because they need to be able to flexibly associate different concepts together. That requires the knowledge to be stored in a slightly different way.”
True to the Sonophilia Foundation’s most fundamental conviction that anyone can be creative, Hannah reasoned that creativity tends to emerge under specific environmental conditions. As researchers and scientists, their mission is to discover what those conditions are and what cognitive processes are involved. Through neuroimaging methods in neuroscience and processes, such as memory, executive control, and attention, they’ve begun to capture the essence of creative thinking.
“For real-world purposes, communicating creativity research to the public is important in terms of policy decisions in education and the workplace… [Creativity is] something that we can nourish in the classroom. We can promote it through arts education. We can promote it in the workplace backed by some of this research that’s coming out. Creativity is attainable, and promoting it through our policy means promoting a richer and more enjoyable time on this earth for so many people.”
Through her dual perspective as a scientist and as an artist, Hannah will be collaborating with the Sonophilia Foundation to interpret and advise on research papers and helping to disseminate her knowledge amongst her fellow Sonophilians. In addition to continuing with her scholarly work, Hannah’s summer scholarship program will involve her contributing to the Creativity Factbook project, which will include interesting and engaging facts about creativity that debunk typical creativity myths with recent, relevant, and cutting-edge scientific evidence. These will be written in an accessible way to appeal more broadly to the general public.
“I’m also coming from a personal place where I care a lot about this work as a musician, as an artist, as someone who just cares a lot about creativity and fostering creativity,” she concluded. “I’m very excited to see what happens next with the meetings of all of these great minds.”