Sunday, October 23, 2011

Your Brain on Improv


About the Speaker: Charles Limb is an Associate Professor, Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery, and Faculty, Peabody Conservatory of Music. He combines his two passions to study the way the brain creates and perceives music. He's a hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins who performs cochlear implantations on patients who have lost their hearing.



The idea that artistic creativity is a product of the brain has inspired Limb to explore the connections between the two. By having jazz musicians and rappers demonstrate their creativity through improvisation and free-style rapping while in an fMRI scanner, Limb is able to see activity in specific areas of the brain. Most of the experiments took place at Johns Hopkins University while some took place at the National Institute of Health.


How is the brain able to be creative?

For this experiment, a 35-key MIDI keyboard designed with minimal interference was used in the fMRI scanner. MIDI signals from the keyboard were sent out through the interface and into the computer for analysis.

This study consisted of three experiments. All three experiments involved memorizing a piece and then improvising immediately afterwards. Brain activity (blood flow increase or decrease) was then observed and discussed.

The first experiment had professional jazz musicians memorizing a particular piece of music and then improvising the same piece using the same chord changes. The results showed an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (self-expression) while the lateral prefrontal cortex (self-monitoring) had a decrease in activity.

In the second experiment, Limb explored what brain activity occurs when musicians are “trading” music back and forth with a 12 bar blues piece. One jazz musician was in the fMRI scanner having a musical conversation with another musician, Limb himself, in the control room. The results showed that the musician’s Broca’s area, language area, as well as the brain area potentially connected to expressive communication were activated. These results provide some insight to the claim that music is a language.

The third experiment was to think about the connections between free-style rap and jazz. Free-style artists first memorized a rap written by Limb (control conditions). With the help of various cued words, the artists then created their own version of the rap. From a combination of four rappers’ brains, similarily to the previous experiments, language areas were shown to be active. However, when free-styling occurred, there was an increase in brain activity in the visual areas as well as cerebellar activity (i.e.motor coordination).

The connections between the brain and creativity are insightful, but because these results are preliminary, it is Limb’s hope that in the next few decades, we will be able to see more comprehensive studies that demonstrate this connection.


It really is amazing to think just how a jazz musician such as Keith Jarrett, can improvise on a piano for an entire concert. It is also interesting to see the results that one might expect when the participants are expected to improvise laying down in an fMRI scanner. Seeing the results of this preliminary study, the brain areas that are affected when performing a creative task, I am led to some questions for future studies.

1. What brain activity would occur if participants did not have a memorized piece, but were given a new piece to improvise?

2. What is the definition of creativity? For example, some people are able to think creatively almost immediately while others are able to be very creative with more time and thought. It would be interesting for researchers to consider this concern in their future studies.

As researchers try to find the root of creativity in the brain, I think about how this and future studies relate to children and creativity. Though the results are preliminary, the connections that are involved between the brain and creative tasks provide some insight into the pedagogical implications for music education. I look forward to hearing about these future studies.

1 comment:

mary wei said...

Improvization has never been my forte, and I think that is one of the reasons it's hard for me to "understand" Jazz. However, this study had interesting insights on our brain functions when we improvize. During the second experiment of 12-bars exchange before two musicians, the Broca's area of language was activated. I wonder if it's the structure of the call and response that mimicked conversation, hence activating the language area, or if there are other factors? I also question the method of memorizing the piece before improvization. Was it memorized so they have a more structural form of the music? Did the improvization include original content (copied a passage from an area and altered it)? And would that affect the activiation of different areas in the brain? For future studies, I would like to find out if improvization increases brain functions due to its creative nature? Or does it just access the memory and retrieve information faster?