Brain Science Shows How Musical Creativity is Unleashed

Research scientist Charles J. Limb could hardly believe his own ears when he listened to the sounds of jazz improvisation created by a musician inside a magnetic resonance imager used to study the workings of the human brain. There is barely room for one person inside the brain scanner, much less a person with a piano. Yet the sounds were real, and they were, as Limb put it, "fantastic."

Limb, who is also a jazz saxophonist, had turned to the scanner, and a few fellow musicians, for an answer to a question that haunts him every time he settles in for a little jazz improvisation.

What Limb wanted to know is, to borrow his own question:

"How the heck can we do this?"

Now, he's a little closer to an answer, thanks to one of the most inventive scientific experiments to come down the research pike in a long time. Because of an ergonomic torture chamber, and the brilliance of six jazz pianists, Limb and fellow researcher Allen R. Braun have found intriguing evidence. During improvisation, musicians turn down the part of the brain that governs self-regulation and inhibition, and turn up the part that influences creativity.

Self Expression

For Limb, it's more than scientific research. It is a big part of what he is.

"Music is why I became a hearing specialist," Limb said in an interview. Today, he is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, but he also holds a faculty appointment at the city's Peabody Institute, one of the country's premier music conservatories. Limb and Braun of the National Institutes of Health, were talking one day about their passion for jazz when they decided to try something new.

There has been much research about the health benefits of playing an instrument, or even just listening to music. But there has been little research into how music is produced, or more specifically, how some people can make up music through improvisation, "generating music that has never been heard, thought, practiced or played before," Limb said.

"How could John Coltrane play for hours and generate music spontaneously, on the spot? It's remarkable. I think any jazz fan has wondered about those same things."

That's not an easy issue to address in a laboratory setting.

MRI Improvisation

So Limb and Braun decided to, well, improvise. They had access to functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment (fMRI), so they knew they could scan the brains of musicians to see which areas lit up during improvisation. That would tell them something about this unique creative process. But here's the real tricky part: How do you get a saxophone, or a piano, into a chamber that produces an enormously powerful magnetic field? And how can a musician play an instrument inside such a contraption?

And for this, these guys deserve a medal for creativity.

They built a special keyboard with no metallic parts, so it could work inside the imager. And then they recruited three musicians from the Peabody. Three other pianists somehow heard of the research, probably through gossip in the jazz community, and volunteered to participate. That left the scientists with six musicians and a keyboard they were expected to play inside the magnetic chamber. There is only room for one person at a time in the MRI.

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