Jim Fleming: Charles Limb is a surgeon and a musician who researches the way musical creativity works in the brain. In a series of groundbreaking experiments he put jazz musicians inside an fMRI to find out what the brain does during musical improvisation. The renowned bass player, Mike Pope, is one of his research subjects. That's him playing right now... Anne Strainchamps explores the science and the music.
Anne Strainchamps: Mike, that is just such a great version of “The Way you Look Tonight.”You guys sound like you're really cooking. How much of that is rehearsed, and how much is improvised?
Mike Pope: That arrangement was written.. well in terms of that counter line, <speaks the musical phrase>.. that saying and of course the melody, those two things were written very much in the way that a two part Bach invention on a much simpler level would be written. The solo sections and the bridge when it starts to swing, it's written, but it's not super specific. It's just chord changes and melody and bass lines being made up and chords specifically are being made up. There is just a skeleton of stuff written.
Strainchamps: So Charles, listening to this, is this the sound of musical genius to you?
Charles Limb: It's pretty cool isn't it? It's kind of typical to me how Mike thinks. I mean that you start with something familiar that you know and then you take to a place that is completely unexpected. I think that is what jazz is all about. I think every jazz musician is trying to squeeze something out of themselves that is new and unexpected and better than what they've heard or played before.
Strainchamps: This is the kind of music you've been investigating in your science lab. What are the kinds of questions that lead you there? What is it you heard and wondered about in music like this?
Limb: For me it has to do with the mystery of who we are. How can we create these things? How can we generate novelty? So what we've done is we try to design a series of experiments that allow us to look at the brain state in which one is able to play music, which is already a high level of cognitive ability on many levels, versus play something that they're generating spontaneously or improvising. So the experiments are really designed to get at that difference. What changes in the brain when you go from doing something memorized or over-learned and transition into doing something improvised or created on the spot.
Strainchamps: And so you put jazz musicians inside an fMRI and said, “Make music?”
Limb: Something like that. I mean to a certain extent. There are a bunch of different experiments. Jazz players, first of all, if you put them in the scanner with a piano, they'll do that anyway. While they're setting up, if you put a jazz piano down in this environment, put a piano on their lap, give them a set of headphones, and you go into the control room, before you've even sat down to turn on your machines, they're already improvising. It just happens all the time.
Really what we're doing is trying to set up a construct where we're measuring brain activity in a pretty controlled way yet to them doesn't feel that controlled because what they're doing is something they do all the time in music. That is to either play a melody that they know or to improvise on that melody. I think what is lost here is how remarkable a transformation, neurologically, that is.
Strainchamps: Okay. So I have to say, I've been inside an MRI scanner, and there's not much room in that little tunnel!
Limb: That's right it's tight.
Strainchamps: Mike, how do you play music in there?
Pope: As my father would say, “With great difficulty.”
Strainchamps: What are you actually playing? It's a tiny little keyboard?
Pope: It's a keyboard that Charles developed. It needs to not have any ferrous metal in it obviously in order to be operated in the presence of that strong magnet.
Limb: I'll tell you that piano keyboard took about two years to develop together with an engineer, and the day it actually worked, I remember this very clearly, I couldn't believe it actually worked without artifacts or some sort of glitch. I was literally amazed. I was like, “Oh my God this thing is actually working!”Then I kind of paused, “Now what?” There was a series of experiments. The first one was literally, improvise on a twelve-bar blues, or play a memorized melody to the same twelve-bar blues. So that was the first experiment. That was kind of neat for us. So the one that Michael did earlier was a follow-up experiment where rather than just having one musician play the blues, is to have two musicians. One inside the scanner whose brain was being measured, and another one outside the scanner who was playing back and forth in a kind of trading fours paradigm, so that we could look at the brain mechanisms behind a musical conversation.
Strainchamps: Did you see a difference in brain activity?
Limb: We absolutely saw really neat differences in brain activity. In the first situation where a solo musician is just improvising, when you start improvising, as opposed to memorizing, your brain changes remarkably. One of the key changes is in the frontal lobes. We found a large part of the frontal lobe shut down, and this is with the self-monitoring, self-inhibitory region. We had this other area turn up, which is this sort of autobiographical, self-referential area. So we a dissociated state of brain activity where one area went up and one area went down in the frontal lobes that was characterizing all the improvisational states.
Strainchamps: What is this autobiographical area that lights up?
Limb: That was the medial pre-frontal cortex. It's kind of a mid-line structure, meaning that it is sort of in the front of the brain towards the center, and this part of the brain is very active when you're doing nothing for example. So if you're doing a task, in between the the tasks, it's very active because it's sort of the part of your brain that is very active when you aren't doing anything in particular. It's what we call the “default network.”This default network is also involved with things like telling a story about yourself in autobiographical narrative. Also if you have a musically evoked memory, meaning you hear a song, and it reminds you of when you were ten, that area of the brain tends to be active. So that's what I mean by a self-referential, almost inwardly directed, area of the brain.
Strainchamps: So what does it mean, that that is the area of the brain that seems to be most active when musical improvisation is going on?
Limb: What we're interpreting its meaning is that when you're improvising, you're telling your musical story. You are using your own voice, your own signature, your life experiences, your musical background, your skills to tell this musical story. And that is why it is autobiographical, without using words, when you're improvising. And also, you really are trying to generate more ideas, new ideas, rather than shut them down. You kind of want to turn on the faucet rather than turn off the faucet. I think that's part of why these self-monitoring areas turn off. You're less concerned with making a mistake than you are with not playing safely. Really, the goal is to go somewhere you haven't been before musically.
Strainchamps: Mike, does that resonate for you? When you're improvising, does it feel to you as though it's a slightly different brain state?
Pope: Yeah, it undoubtedly is. The sensation that I have when I play is that my consciousness is essentially a conductor, and my motor nervous system is an orchestra because the consciousness, the part that does inhibit the part that is contemplative and all that stuff, can't do a good job of really making or playing music. It's not what it's there to do. I've had experiences where I've played music, and I've reacted to things that I had heard before I was conscious that they had happened. I've actually played something in response to something I've heard and not known what it was until later when I thought about it.
Strainchamps: So when you're improvising, are you thinking?
Pope: I'm... thinking, but it's not linear thought. I'm not thinking along as I go. I'm thinking maybe about a myriad of things, some of which may have nothing to do with the music. I might just be thinking, “Oh did I feed the meter?”Who knows? Again, it's not linear thought.
Strainchamps: Does it feel good?
Pope: Yeah it should. When it's right. And that's one of the things about music that, to me the thing that makes music not feel good is no communication at all. That's the thing that makes it sort of sterile, and it takes the life out of it.
Limb: That's actually why we did that experiment where we had two musicians play back and forth. We wanted to see what happens in the brain when you're having this kind of communication musically. These results are kind of hot off the press in that we are just actually analyzing them. But they have been really neat. We're definitely language areas of the brain, classical language areas of the brain, light up when you're having a musical exchange that's improvised, but not a musical exchange that's memorized.
Pope: I believe that absolutely. I 100% believe that to be true.
Limb: It was true in your brain for sure. I saw it the other day.
Strainchamps: Does it feel like you're having a conversation, Mike, when you're playing with another musician?
Pope: Yeah, it absolutely does. I even remember experiences early on when I was 16 or 17 years old and doing a lot of playing, but I remember one experience in particular where I did a gig, it was like I played really late the night before, and I had to play super early the next day, and I was extremely, extremely tired, and I remember almost hallucinating words to what I was playing. I was so exhausted I was closing my eyes and really enthralled in what I was doing, and I remember almost actually thinking a string of words. Not quite, but when you're in a dream state or a near-sleep state, you think you are thinking of words, but they're not actually words, they're just mumbo-jumbo. I don't know if that has ever happened to you, but for me as a kid, a lot. I would wake up and think, “What was that? That was the coolest way to say that. What was that?”I could never think of it. Probably because it was never a word at all. It was just some other kind of a thought.
Strainchamps: Charles, are we... I have a sense, and I know you have said in other places that we are maybe on the cusp of developing a whole new science of creativity, that something very exciting is happening.
Limb: I think so, and I hope so. Creativity used to be something that artists and theorists, philosophers thought about more than scientists. I think scientists viewed it as kind of off limits or maybe too difficult to get to because scientists by nature are reductionists. We want to start with the building blocks and then add one little piece to the next until you understand the whole thing, so what I think is happening, though, is that we have methods now that enable us to do things that we weren't able to do twenty years ago, thirty years ago.. functional MRI being one of them, but not the only one. And so with these new methods, we can really approach a whole new range of cognitive questions that I think get to the nature of our creativity, genius, and insight into a way that is more relevant and maybe more artistically genuine than what was done before.
Strainchamps: Why is it that we humans seek creativity? Why does the brain seek creativity? Do we need it?
Pope: Does everybody's brain seek creativity, Charles? I mean I don't know.
Limb: I've wondered this question a lot. I guess another way to translate that is, what is the biological reward, or the neurological reward we get when we recognize novelty in something. We have this all the time, a sense of delight with jazz when you hear something unexpected or new or when you're at a museum and you see a painting, and you say, “Wow look at that.”There is a sense of... I mean I can't describe it as anything else, but some neurological endorphin thing that you get where you think to yourself, “Huh, I just had a eureka moment that is induced by this other person's insight.”So I think there is a biological basis to this, and I think it has to do with the very core of how we survive as a species. We need to innovate and adapt in order to survive. If we don't evolve, we perish. So I think we are actually hard-wired to be attracted to new solutions.
Jim Fleming: Charles Limb is a surgeon at Johns Hopkins. He performs cochlear implants on people who have lost their hearing. Mike Pope is a well-known jazz bassist. They spoke with Anne Strainchamps.
Coming up, why the smartest people might not be the most creative. From, “To the Best of our Knowledge”, I'm Jim Fleming. This hour, “The Creative Brain” is part of our special series, “Meet your Mind: A User's Guide to Science of Consciousness”, brought to you by Wisconsin Public Radio and PRI, Public Radio International.