What happens in a jazz musician's brain during an improv session? Where does all that creativity come from? That's what Dr. Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins surgeon with a passion for music, wanted to find out. Limb's medical specialty as an otolaryngologist is restoring deaf people's hearing with the use of cochlear implants, electronic devices that translate sounds for people with damaged ears. But in his research, Limb studies the effects of jazz on the brain.
In a study published this year in the Public Library of Science ONE, Limb reported results of an experiment in which he had professional jazz pianists improvise riffs as an MRI machine scanned their brain waves. The experience offered a peek in the regions of the brain responsible for spontaneous creativity. While they improvised, regions of their brains linked to inhibition turned off, while areas linked to creativity turned on.
How did an ear surgeon get involved studying how the brain processes music?
I've always played music. Truthfully, I'm totally obsessed with music. I play a lot of instruments but mainly saxophone. I decided because of my interest in music to become a hearing specialist. I take patients who have deafness and I put devices inside their head and thread them into their inner ear to restore their hearing or give them hearing for the first time. That's my clinical life. My research focuses on how we hear complex sounds such as music. When somebody is playing music or listening to music, what is going on in the brain?
Why explore improvisational jazz?
As a jazz player, you often speculate about someone like John Coltrane, and you say, 'How did they come up with that? How did somebody just play that right on the spot?' If you listen to jazz over and over, you realize these people are geniuses. They are generating idea after idea after idea. ... They never played the same way before and they'll never play the same way again. That to me is what's so unique about jazz. It's spontaneous, immediate composition.
A lot of the music studies have dealt with music perception, what's going on when we hear something. What I wanted to study is what's going on in the brain of a musician that's jamming, just improvising on the spot. It's a relevant question to humanity on a level that has nothing to do with music. What in the brain allows us to be creative? Jazz is my model to get at that question.
Did your results correlate well with other experiments on creativity?
There are not a lot of experiments on creativity that have been done. So I didn't have a lot of pre-existing literature to compare it to. There are some analogies to being in 'the zone' creatively and altered states of consciousness like meditation.
In jazz, when you watch somebody play, say, bass, they look very much like they are no longer aware of their surroundings; they're kind of in some zone. That zone is probably the same zone as skeet shooters when they're going 'bang, bang, bang,' hitting target after target or free throw shooters who can make 100 free throws in a row. The moment you tell them, 'I'll pay you a million dollars if you make the next one,' they choke. Why do they choke? Because they get out of the zone. You're taking this free flow state, and you're interrupting it by putting in inhibitory mechanisms.
What we found is that those inhibitory mechanisms in the brain shut way off during improvisation. People have suggested that in altered states of consciousness that there might be something called 'hypofrontality' where the front of the brain kind of shuts down. And it does, but another part goes way up.
Have you experienced what you're talking about yourself?
Absolutely. And that's in no way trying to say I'm a fantastic musician. When you are improvising, to get comfortable with it you can't be too self-conscious. You'll never really feel like your improvising. You'll always feel like you're thinking. With improvisation, a lot of it is saying I'm going to be a vessel for the notes. The notes are going to come out, and if they're wrong, they're wrong, if they're great, they're great. I'm going to take a chance on sounding bad. That's how I think real musicians fully engage in improvisation. You can be really safe, but you'll never come up with anything novel.
What's next now that you've figured this part out?
If you ever watched musicians play together, sometimes they do this thing called trading fours. It's a kind of call and answer period. One person will play four bars, and another person will respond back. In some ways, what's happening is a kind of musical conversation. I'd like to image that using the MRI scanner. I'd like to image them not just improvising on their own, but responding to something they've just heard.
Also, a lot of people ask me how this stuff might pertain to other art domains. That's a great question. What is taking place in the brain when an artist does an abstract house versus copies a house from a picture? There's got to be something totally different taking place in the brain. So I'd like to see if we could use some other art mediums. Freestyle rap is another example. Rap and jazz have a lot of analogies socially. Freestyle rappers, if they're good, improvise their raps on the spot. That's very much like a jazz improvisation. It would be neat for me to bring some rappers into a scanner and see what's going on with their free- styling.
Did you ever think about becoming a professional saxophonist?
At some point in my life I felt like I wasn't going to change the world with music. I think you really know if you have what it takes to be a professional musician. I had no illusions. I love it, but to say you just want to do that for your life, that's another thing entirely.
Both my parents are physicians, and although they never explicitly encouraged me to go into medicine, but I guess it must have had some effect. In college, I decided I could always have music as something I love doing, but it didn't have to be the source of my work. And yet ... here I am doing it as my work. [He laughs.] I feel very lucky to be able to do what I do. I've been able to combine my true, deepest hobby with something I'm academically and intellectually and technically trained in. To combine my worlds like that, ... I've been very lucky.
To see a video featuring Limb's research and footage of him playing his saxophone in a subway station, go to baltimoresun.com/limb