Armed with this information, we can now see how a brain on wu-wei might function. We can even get a reasonably precise picture of it, thanks to some recent neuroscientific work on wu-wei–like states. A clever study by Charles Limb and Allen Braun peered into what’s happening in the minds of professional jazz pianists in action. They designed a special, nonferromagnetic keyboard that could be taken inside the fMRI scanner, which is basically a huge magnet. The researchers then had them play in two different conditions. In the first, “Scales,” they were required to play, over and over, a one-octave C scale. In the “Jazz Improv” condition, they were asked to remain in the same key but improvise a melody based upon a composition they’d previously been asked to memorize.
The researchers’ most striking finding was the pattern of activation when the pianists switched into improvisation mode: widespread deactivation of the lateral [prefrontal cortex] and increased activity across relevant sensorimotor systems, the [anterior cingulate cortex], and the frontal polar portion of a region known as the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). What this study suggests is that, in a spontaneous yet high-skill situation such as jazz improv, the conflict-detecting ACC remains alert in the background even when the lateral PFC is turned off. This particular neural configuration may correspond subjectively to the kind of relaxed but vigilant mode we enter into when we’re fully absorbed in a complex activity. In other words, at least some forms of wu-wei appear to involve shutting down active conscious awareness and control while maintaining background situational alertness. When your conscious mind lets go, the body can take over.