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April 8, 2013

Your Brain On Jazz

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In a note-worthy study of the human brain, scientists have discovered that a large expanse of a musician's brain "shuts off" while improvising music.

[If you cannot see the Revver video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: Charles Limb, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Length: 1 min 30 sec
Produced by Brad Kloza
Edited by Brad Kloza and James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

"Take 5"

Jazz and science would seem to make strange bedfellows, but both form the basis of Charles Limb's career. On the one hand, he's a faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, and a life-long jazz musician. On the other, he's also a doctor and assistant professor in Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

"The thing I love about jazz is that in many ways it's so unscientific," says Limb. "You know, when you listen to jazz, what you realize is that these musicians, they really live by breaking the rules, by sort of rejecting excessive control over what they’re going to do. … And I think for a scientist who sort of thrives on controlling variables and really having a clear sense of order in all things, the freedom that really characterizes jazz— it’s an unusual mix."

That mix came front and center when Limb decided he wanted to use science to study jazz. In particular, he was interested in the neurological basis of improvisation.

"The mental state, the creative state that you’re in when you’re improvising is entirely different than when you’re playing something that you’ve learned by memory," he says. "As a jazz musician for most of my life, I’ve always wondered what takes place inside my head when I’m actually improvising something."

So Limb teamed up with Dr. Allen Braun, his colleague (at the time) at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). They developed a special keyboard that, with the help of a series of mirrors, could be played by someone inside a functional MRI machine.

Limb plays a keyboard as a functional MRI machine takes scans of his brain.
Limb and Braun wanted to see if different areas of the brain are active when musicians take different approaches to playing. So they recruited six professional piano players who were jazz artists, and had them play inside the MRI under two different schemes:

Low Complexity: The musicians played a simple c-major scale, "something that they’d played thousands of times," says Limb. Then they improvised to a c-major scale.

High Complexity: The musicians performed a short piece of previously memorized music that Limb composed for the study (called Magnetism- get it?), as a recording of a jazz quartet played in the background. Then they improvised along with the recording.

When Limb and Braun looked at the brain scans, the same thing stood out for both the high and low complexity schemes.

"Improvisation was associated with this very, very similar brain response, independent of level of complexity," says Limb. "So the really key part of our paper is that improvisation—the unique state in which you’re spontaneously generating new ideas and playing them musically—has a kind of characteristic, signature neural state which we’re looking at when we do these functional scans. We think we really honed in on what is going on in the brain during improvisation."

And what's going on is…nothing (sort of).

Limb says the most interesting thing was that one area went largely silent when the musicians switched to improvisation. That area, a part of the prefrontal cortex, is known for helping us monitor our behavior and performance.

"This is a broad expanse of brain that basically shut down during improvisation.," says Limb, adding, "One of the things it’s closely involved in is in self-monitoring, and sort of conscious evaluation of what you’re doing. So for example, to judge the appropriateness or correctness of your behavior, this area would be active."

And Limb says for jazz improv, that makes sense.

"What you want is to just generate ideas, and you don’t really want to worry too much about whether they sounded right," he says. "You don’t want to be too inhibited by that. And I think that these musicians are so proficient that they're able to enter this creative state where they’re essentially uninhibited rather easily."

For any amateur musicians out there hoping this might lead to some kind of jazz pill, that's not in the cards. But Limb says it's a unique look into the physiology of creativity, and he thinks the findings probably apply to other spontaneous artistic creations, such as painting or poetry.

He's also been asked whether using an MRI to study an art form takes away from the mystique with which it's typically regarded.

"Although there’s a tendency to want to very much romanticize artistic creation, kind of put it on the level of magic or something mystical-- while there may be mystical and magical aspects to it, they are products of brain function," Limb says. "And without making that sound mundane, I think that what we’ve done is try to address the fact that, well, it might be ordinary processes within the brain that are giving rise to these extraordinary musical achievements. To me it makes it in a way more appealing than to just leave it in the kind of abstract realm of something mystical."

Limb adds, "And on the other hand, I think music is so mathematical that when we start to put all these things together-- you know the logic and structure of music, the freedom of jazz-- and combine that with the fact that they’re all really products of the human brain, there is sort of a logical correlation that, well, if it’s a product of the brain, we should use tools to study the brain to assess something, even something that’s as seemingly random as jazz."

The study, published in the February 27 issue of PLoS ONE, was funded by the NIDCD.

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