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: 

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

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

  • Peter Ban says:

    How real­is­tic is a research on jazz impro­vi­sa­tion with­out the play­ers being stoned out their heads?

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