What do Franz Liszt and Jay Z have in common? Not much—one is a classical composer, the other is a rapper; one is dead, the other is alive. We could go on, but one thing they do have in common is their fantastic ability to improvise. Both have or had musical, skill but what really sets them apart from their contemporaries is their ability to perform without preparation—creating music on the spur of the moment.

To some extent, it’s impossible to be truly musical without being able to improvise—it’s what allows musicians to create new melodies and rhythms—and yet little is known about how it’s done. Dr. Charles Limb, associate professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, has made it his business to find out more about the process of improvisation—of creating new musical ideas, essentially—and is providing the scientific world with some interesting insights on jazz, hip-hop and creativity in broader terms.

Brain World: How did you come to be studying the nature of improvisation?
Charles Limb: I’ve always been deeply drawn to music, ever since I remember. My parents tell me I was interested when I was a child. They introduced me to piano when I was a kid, but it was when I was a teen that I became obsessed with it. For me, that time was a period when I was trying to understand my own existence, and I found that there was nothing more helpful than music. Nothing more profound, comforting and beautiful than music. I didn’t feel I should become a musician, though, even though I was a decent jazz saxophonist for my age.

BW: So music led you to science?
CL: Although people don’t often associate science with creativity, actually the two are inseparable. To come up with new theories to test, you need to be able to think creatively. So I studied music and medicine at the same time, and once I realized I could combine them by becoming a hearing specialist, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I’m one of the luckiest surgeons in the world!

BW: What exactly happens in the brain during improvisation?
CL: In simplistic terms, the parts of the brain related to self-awareness shut down. But it’s not really quite that simple. When we do functional magnetic resonance images, we say one part or other of the brain “lights up” or “shuts down,” but this is based on statistics—looking at relative changes in activity in those areas. So if we see that one part of the brain has significantly greater-than or less-than normal activity when a person is doing a certain task, it’s described as shutting down or lighting up, when it’s often a lot more subtle than that.
In the case of improvisation, it seems that during spontaneous creative modes there is deactivation in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. This hypofrontal mode is also typical of other altered states of consciousness, when people would describe themselves as “in the zone” or in a flow state. There’s less self-monitoring and less self awareness—these are processes that could impede the goal of being creative, of having free-flow output. If, as a jazz musician, you’re continually thinking about what could happen if you make a mistake, you take fewer risks, and so reducing self-inhibition is a necessary ingredient to actual generation of musical novelty.
Of course, there’s a difference between low-level creativity that can approach randomness, and high-level creativity, such as between a person plucking randomly at guitar strings and a highly trained musician improvising.

BW: What brain processes are heightened during improvisation?
CL: We’ve found in our studies that when you’re doing a creative spontaneous task, the senses and motor regions of the brain are more active. This is logical when you think about it—even a comparatively simple musical task is very complicated. Playing piano, for example, involves hearing and vision, as well as touch and movement. It’s a rich, complex behavior.

BW: Do these same processes occur during other times?
CL: Yes, there are some similarities between the way the brain behaves during improvisation and when a person dreams, during REM sleep. There isn’t a huge amount of data on these relationships, but they’re intriguing because there do seem to be many parallels in what takes place. Again, it’s logical that the two states would be similar, since when you’re dreaming you’re also dealing with unplanned outcomes and free associations. One of our most creative times is when we’re dreaming—we’re not inhibited and so we have the capacity to be incredibly imaginative.

BW: So would the reduction in inhibitions that people experience when drunk or on mind-altering substances also enhance creativity?
CL: A lot of mind-altering substances have a parallel or similar effect—they also cause hypofrontal states, so it’s certainly plausible that they might augment or facilitate creativity. But the problem is that they may also impair other processes that are required for creativity. For example, to be creative with a musical instrument you need a high level of skill, but your motor control would be impaired on alcohol. So your reaction times and your ability to process sounds wouldn’t be as good. That said, there are lots of examples throughout recent history where art has been affected in a positive way with the use of exogenous agents, as well as certain diseases, psychoses, depression. This indicates that getting out of a state of normalcy has an effect on creative output.

BW: And do creative people tend to have different brains, in terms of structure?
CL: It does appear to change the structure and function of the brain. Musicians with perfect pitch have a structural asymmetry in the primary auditory cortex—that’s unusual. Talent doesn’t usually show up in the brain in terms of its shape, but on some level there may be differences—in cortical thickness, volume of neurons in a particular region and so on. There are trends, but it’s a chicken-and-egg–type situation. Does a person become a musician because they have that kind of brain, or is it the other way around? People may have natural aptitudes and then exercising them through music may introduce brain plasticity.

BW: Are there differences between musicians, in terms of how their brains respond when improvising?
CL: Freestyle hip-hop rappers also showed fascinating changes in brain activity that paralleled those observed in jazz improvisation, although with obvious differences likely related to the fact that rapping involves use of spoken language. We performed a functional MRI experiment in which rappers were asked to memorize a novel series of rhymes, or spontaneously generate rhymes incorporating a random cue word, all to the accompaniment of a rhythmic beat. During creative freestyle improvisation, rappers demonstrated functional activation in language areas, sensorimotor regions and deactivation in prefrontal cortical areas that were distinct from those changes observed during memorized rapping. This study has been enlightening and, frankly, a blast to pursue—freestyle rappers are just an incredibly creative and interesting group of individuals! Their attitude has been great as well. Rather than being put off by the idea of a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital studying rap, they’ve been completely into the idea of it. They also deeply want to understand how their brains work, just like I do.


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