This is Your Brain on Jazz Improvisation: The Neuroscience of Creativity

It’s clear that amateur saxophonist and Johns Hopkins surgeon Charles Limb has an abiding interest in the neuroscience of creativity.

He’s also an unabashed fanboy. I’ll bet the spirit of scientific inquiry is not the only motivating factor behind this jazz fan’s experiments on jazz improvisers.

Sure, he has them play spontaneous variations on a MIDI keyboard in a functional MRI tube in order to study blood oxygen levels in various parts of their brains.

But he also gets to hang out in the technologist’s booth, ”trading fours” with captive musician Mike Pope, whom he describes in his TED Talk, above, as “one of the world’s best bassists and a fantastic piano player.”




Is this an experiment or a DIY fantasy camp?

I’m not sure one needs thousands of dollars’ worth of medical equipment to conclude that improvisation thrives when the inner critic is banished. But that’s exactly what Dr. Limb’s findings reveal. Activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, an area associated with self-monitoring, dropped dramatically, while that in the medial prefrontal cortex—a structure associated with the self-expression—spiked.

The same thing happened when a rapper named Emmanuelle was in the tube, free-styling on a set of prompts contained in a rhyme Dr. Limb composed for the occasion:

My passion’s not fashion, you can see how I’m dressed 

Psychopathic words in my head appear

Whisper these lyrics only I can hear

The art of discovering and that which is hovering 

Inside the mind of those unconfined 

All of these words keep pouring out like rain 

I need a mad scientist to check my brain 

(For me, the best part of the TED Talk was when a nervous Dr. Limb gamely performed his rap for the crowd, the lyrics projected on a giant screen in case they wanted to chime in. What I wouldn’t give to have a scan of his brain in this moment…)

The ultimate value of Dr. Limb’s research remains to be seen. If nothing else, we may get a bit more insight into the workings of this most mysterious of organs. But I was struck by a remark he made in an interview with Ability, a magazine focusing on health, disability and human potential:

At some point, every musician grapples with whether they’re going to pursue it as a profession, or do something else to make a living. Some musicians absolutely feel that there’s no other road for them. And then there are other people, like me, who could have gone into music, but I didn’t feel like I deserved to. And what I mean by that is I wasn’t willing to suffer for my art. You have to have the conviction, that you can ride out the lows, to be a really successful musician.

Perhaps in the future, those with the temperament for a career in improvisational jazz will use an fMRI to double check that their deoxyhemoglobin concentrations are also up to the task.

Related Content: 

Why We Love Repetition in Music: Explained in a New TED-Ed Animation

Playing an Instrument Is a Great Workout For Your Brain: New Animation Explains Why

Philosopher Jacques Derrida Interviews Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman: Talk Improvisation, Language & Racism (1997)

Sonny Rollins Describes How 50 Years of Practicing Yoga Made Him a Better Musician

Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She studied comedy improvisation with Del Close and plays the piano poorly. Follow her @AyunHalliday


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  • Writer says:

    Great article. I would doubt whether it’s important to record all body reactions to a spontaneous act like improvisation.. why removing mystery?

    I think that once i am thinking of my experience with improvisation i just destroy the ability to improvise.. which is because the unknown is slowly transformed to known – don’t know if i am allowed but if yes please take a few minutes to check how i would describe my latest improvisation along with other musicians http://www.meditativediaries.com/meditative-music/

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