Scientists who study improvisation put jazz pianists in a brain scanner and say, "Improvise now." [The scans show] they turn off a part of the brain that normally keeps us from saying and doing things; they turn it off like a switch, so they create without worrying what they're creating. The analogy scientists use is like learning a second language. It takes years of practice [so] you can do it without thinking about it; it becomes automatic. The sense is that your head gets in the way.
Like improv. Can you do improv?
I had the pleasure of attending some Second City classes in Hollywood. I was actually thinking about doing it, but I saw how good they were, and I was — speaking of fear — so intimidated.
Some religious believers think advances in neuroscience are painting faith into a zero-sum corner.
That stems from the mistaken belief that science will solve everything; that if you worry about God being in the gaps and there will be no gaps, then how can we believe in God? I'm not worried about there being no mysteries left. Some people [say], what business does science have putting a jazz improviser in a scanner? You're going to unweave the rainbow; you're going to take this beautiful thing and turn it into acronyms. I don't think we're in any danger of that.
Is there a Holy Grail in neuroscience?
Consciousness. These trillion synaptic connections, somehow they give rise to subjective self-experience. We have no idea how that happens, not even glimmers.
Cities generate creativity, but are cities really good for the individual human brain?
There's some interesting evidence suggesting we obviously weren't designed to live in a city. It's stressful; it's distracting. When you walk two miles in a city versus two miles in a lovely natural setting, you're going to perform worse on a battery of cognitive tests. The city is going to tire you out.
But cities come with enormous benefits. The best way to get smart, the best way to be smart, is to hang out with other smart people, and that's what cities are all about. That's why urban density is good. Urbanization is the great theme of human civilization right now. I think we're going to do a better job of learning to mitigate the downside. These negative psychological impacts can be quickly remedied by exposure to green space.
What's your next brain quest?
I'm interested in love, not just as a surge of dopamine or oxytocin. Every other pleasure gets old. The second bite of chocolate cake is not as good as the first — it's called habituation, and it's a universal law of pleasure. Yet love doesn't get old. We don't adapt to it. Even after 50 years of marriage, you still find someone exciting. That's a mystery I want to know something about.
Speaking of love, you have a daughter nearly a year old. Do you watch her with both a dad brain and a science brain?
Not to sound all romantic, but it does bring home this three pounds of meat that somehow learns to make sense of the world, speak a language, invent things. This very tiny chunk of matter — to watch it engineer itself is pretty amazing.
I'm [studying] the importance of grit, how grit seems to be a predictive character trait in terms of success. So I'm seeing everything through the lens of grit, and if she starts to whine a little bit, I'm, like, "Oh, build up your grit!"
This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript.
Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.