Charles Limb: Your brain on improv
TEDxMidAtlantic, Filmed November 2010; Posted January 2011
Charles Limb, a surgeon who has made many contributions to scholarship on creativity, examines how the brain functions during improvisatory music experiences. Fascinated with sound and music, Limb became a surgeon, which enabled him to combine his two passions, and continue to study the science of sound and how it is processed by the brain.
His discussion begins with a videoclip of Keith Jarrett, an iconic jazz improv pianist, known for his completely improvised concert performances. Jarrett creates the music as he goes to avoid giving repeat performances that sound alike. His playing is seamless.
After observing Jarrett’s performance, Limb posits a thesis that “artistic creativity is in fact a neurologic product,” and thus, it is a process which can be studied, just as any other complex cognitive process. He also poses two questions in his inquiry, the first of which he also problematizes from a scientific perspective. Limb wonders: Is it possible to study creativity scientifically, without creating a dense study wherein one can no longer hear the music? These “unmusical” studies “miss the whole point of the music.”
The second question which Limb presents is: why should scientists study creativity? Limb concludes that because of the science of innovation, we are able to learn and understand more about how the brain is able to be creative. According to Limb, the plethora of questions that neuroscientists have regarding creativity in the brain far exceed the answers that exist, thus far.
Limb relies on functional MRI to study the active brain, using a process called BOLD imaging, or blood oxygen level imaging. This measures the rate of blood flow which causes an increase in the deoxyhemoglobin concentration in areas of the brain which are active during various creative processes. In the case of Limb’s studies, he uses fMRI to measures brain activity of subjects as they play both memorized and spontaneously generated melodies on a digital MIDI keyboard. Volunteers performed these passages using carefully positioned mirrors to see the piano keyboard, which rested on their legs, while they were inside the scanner. The main goal was for the participants to be playing “real music”, in the most natural type of environment as possible, due to the confinements of the fMRI scanner. An observation of the results from these experiments shows a clear distinction in regions of brain activity involved in practiced versus improvised musical excerpts.
Through the fMRI images produced in both the improvised and memorized musical sessions, Limb was able to target those areas of the brain which are most active during creativity. In addition to areas in the frontal lobe responsible for consciousness, other “multifunctional areas” within the brain, which are responsible for personality features such as introspection, self-reflection, and working memory are also highly active during creativity. It allows one to have fewer inhibitions and more impulsive, thus enabling improvisation and spontaneous generation to occur.
In further studies conducted by Limb, involving musicians’ trading musical melodies back and forth, such as a jazz musician might do, in a communicative, musical process. Results of this musical communication showed brain activity in regions which correlate to those responsible for expressive communication and language. Thus, Limb’s results display neurological evidence pointing towards the notion that music is a type of language through which human interaction occurs.
Finally, Limb concludes his study of creativity by collecting neurological images of rappers, using the same cycle of memorized material followed by spontaneous creation of freestyle verse. Correspondingly, regions in the brain which are responsible for motor coordination and visual areas are much more active during subjects’ creative output. All of these results indicate an increase in brain function during improvisatory processes. Despite a volume of questions that still remain unanswered for Limb in his search for “creative genius, neurologically,” he is hopeful that with current technologies and innovations, “we’re getting close to being there.”
Limb’s research into neurological processes that occur during creativity has many implications for therapeutic applications of music. Furthering our understanding of how the brain processes both instructional and improvisational music can be helpful through multidisciplinary ways. For instance, pinpointing areas of the brain involved in memorized, learned material versus that which is spontaneously generated provides therapeutic possibilities for individuals who have suffered stroke or other brain injuries. Knowing what we do about the brain’s ability to be retrained and its plasticity, in combination with evidence that engagement in creative acts cause increased brain activity, presents the potential to relearn functionalities that may be lost due to injury or illness. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Patients may be able to teach other regions of their brain through (assisted) improvised musical processes; stroke sufferers may regain the cognitive and/or motor functions; and, individuals diagnosed with mood spectrum disorders such as autism, ADHD, ADD, etc. may be able to normalize brain activities by speeding up or slowing down EEG waves through improvised musical performances. Further research is still necessary, but through these preliminary findings, Limb’s contribution to the extant knowledge about how the brain works has successfully mapped direction for further exploration on this topic.