"Charles Limb: Your Brain On Improv"
Ted Talk - TEDxMidAtlantic
Dr. Charles Limb is a surgeon specializing in cochlear implantations, a researcher of the brain, and a musician. In his Ted Talk (2010), Limb discusses his research on improvisation and creativity in the brains of jazz and hip-hip musicians. Beginning his talk with a video of an improvisation by master jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Limb then poses the following problem: How can the brain generate so much musical information spontaneously? His talk tries to begin to answer this question by reference to three fMRI studies that examine artistic creativity on a neurological level. He shows video footage of these experiments.
1) The first study Limb describes is called "Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: A Study of Jazz Improvisation". The question he aims to answer in this study is: "What happens in the brain during something that is memorized and over-learned, and what happens in the brain when something is spontaneously generated or improvised?". In order to answer this, Limb looks at the brain activity in professional jazz musicians doing two tasks: 1) playing a memorized, pre-determined example of music and 2) improvising on the same chord progression as the memorized piece. He does this using a 35-key midi keyboard designed to fit in the scanner, be magnetically safe, and fit on the laps of test-musicians while they are laying down in the fMRI machine.
The results of this study show that when the musicians improvise, the lateral prefrontal cortex (associated with self-monitoring, introspection and working memory) is "turning off", and that the medial prefrontal cortex (associated with self-expression) is "turning on". With these findings, Limb hypothesizes that in order to be creative, the brain has to shut off the part of the brain that is self-inhibiting. In other words, creating novel ideas requires that the musician not censor him/herself or be afraid to make mistakes.
2) In the second study, Limb examines what happens in the brain when two musicians interact and react to each other's improvisations. Limb puts a professional jazz pianist (Mike Pope) in the scanner and another musician (himself) in the control room. They then "trade fours" (a musical conversation where musicians trade off improvising every 4 bars and then repeat this over and over within the musical form of a piece).
The results of this study show that "trading fours" leads to activation of the left interior frontal gyrus - the Broca's area - which is thought to be involved in language and expressive communication. Limb hypothesizes that perhaps there is a neurological basis for the idea that music is a language, since his findings show activity in the language areas of the brain when two musicians are having a "musical conversation".
3) The third study that Limb describes repeats the first study. This time he looks at the brain activity of hip-hop artists instead of jazz artists by having the hip-hop artist perform two tasks: 1) a pre-written rap from memory and then 2) a freestyle (improvise a rap) based on a few select words from that same pre-written rap.
The results he finds in this study are that the language and visual areas of the brain light up when free-styling, in contrast to the performance of the memorized rap. He also finds activation in the cerebellum, which is associated with motor coordination.
Limb concludes his talk by asking some questions he hopes will be answered in the future, now that we have the technology to scientifically study the brain during creative activities.
What is the creative genius?
Why does the brain seek creativity?
How do we acquire creativity?
What factors disrupt creativity?
Can creative behaviour be learned?
Coming from a performance background in jazz, I find this Ted Talk extremely fascinating. I think it is very interesting that in Limb's first study, the part of our brain involved with self-monitoring (lateral prefrontal cortex) was "turning off" during improvisation. I am curious to know if this "turning off" can show up on the fMRI scans in various degrees depending on how engaged the performer is in the improvisation. I wonder if this is the case because in past improvisatory situations, I have felt varying degrees of inhibition - from very self-conscious to completely free and in the moment. I always felt that the latter state always allowed me to improvise better or achieve what some call "flow". Could the "turning off" of the lateral prefrontal cortex be the neurological explanation of "flow", the state where we are so absorbed in the moment that we lose track of or feel outside of ourselves?
Limb's second study, which found that the language areas of the brain light up when musicians interact, appears to suggest that the idea of music as a language has a neurological basis. This comparison makes sense since jazz improvisors often learn musical vocabulary and phrases in order to be able to create a coherent musical statement or respond to someone else's statement; this is similar to how we learn spoken language and the art of conversation too.
Although Limb's third study seems to mirror that of the first, he doesn't discuss whether or not the lateral prefrontal cortex's of the hip-hop musicians were also "turning off" during their free-styling. Does this occur during any type of improvisation, from spoken word, to dance etc? Or just in instrumental improvisation?
One final thought I have is that if improvisation can "turn off" the self-monitoring parts of the brain, allowing us to be more creative, then perhaps improvisation really should be part of our musical education system. I imagine that training the brain to be in this state of un-inhibition and creation through improvisation, would translate positively in other areas of learning and life. Could using improvisational exercises in the school curriculum help foster more creative people and thinkers in general?