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.

"Obviously, from an ergonomic perspective, it's not ideal," Limb conceded. "They are lying on their backs; they have their head kind of in a cage, which is called a head coil; and they are looking up at a mirror, which is pointed to another mirror, which is pointed at their knees. And then they have a piano keyboard resting on their knees, and they can see their hands through those double mirrors."

The keyboard doesn't make any noise at all, but it sends a signal to a computer that translates the signal into a musical note that is then transmitted back to the musician through specially designed earphones with no metal parts. Each participant went through a series of experiments, beginning with the C-major scale, known by every fledgling musician, followed by a piece each participant had memorized. That gave the researchers images of brain functions during those routine performances.

Finally, the participants were told to improvise as they listened to a recording of a jazz quartet. Under such circumstances, one might expect a pretty weak performance.

"They were fantastic," Limb said. "When they were warming up, wow, they were so good that a couple of times I just let them warm up without starting the project because I was just listening. And I was just shocked at their ability to play on a little dinky plastic keyboard with 35 keys, lying down on their back."

In a report on their research in the Feb. 27 edition of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) One, Limb and Braun revealed that the portion of the brain that is associated with careful planning and self-censorship, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, nearly closed down. That's the part of the brain that warns you to tread softly when confronting the boss. It's what makes us inhibited, some more than others.

But the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain linked to self-expression, lit up.

Shutting Down Inhibition

So what appears to happen is that during improvisation, the brain ignores the chance of failure and turns off inhibition, but at the same time it sets the artist free to tell his or her own musical story. As Limb notes, it's probably why some musicians shut their eyes and go into what appears to be a trance as they fly free of the self-censoring part of the brain that might otherwise tell them to stick to the script.

Of course, despite all that, it's still a mystery. Why can some people do it, and others can't? Is it an innate talent that lifts a few above the many, or can anyone learn to do it? For those who can, it must be majestic. For the rest of us, it's simply magic.