Study: Jazz Improv Cranks Up Brain's Creativity

When jazz pianists are improvising riffs, their brains act much more like the dreaming brain, with inhibition turned down and creativity cranked way up, a new study finds.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

It seems almost a contradiction in terms to try to measure creativity. But Dr. Charles Limb, a jazz sax player and hearing specialist at Johns Hopkins University, and Allen Brown of the National Institutes of Health were inspired to try. Dr. Limb and Dr. Brown set out to study what happens in a musician's brain while performing. Not memorized melodies, mind you, but specifically during improvisational rifts.

Bill Evans did it:

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Miles Davis did it:

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: So did John Coltrane:

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: But how did they do that? Exactly what could've been going on in their brains when those musicians closed their eyes and spilled those notes out into the air, inventing as they went along?

Dr. Charles Limb joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore to talk about his study's findings. Dr. Limb, thanks so much for agreeing to talk with us.

Dr. CHARLES LIMB (Hearing Specialist, Johns Hopkins University, Jazz Sax Player): Thank you for having me. Great to be here.

STAMBERG: This must have been some technical challenge, huh? How do you actually go about measuring what happens in the brain while it creates?

Dr. LIMB: You know, scientists are always obsessed with breaking things down into controllable variables. And I think something like jazz is probably almost as far as you can get musically from something controllable. So really, it was just an idea we had to try to set out and then study it scientifically using a functional MRI scanner.

STAMBERG: A functional MRI scanner. That sounds like something that any one of us who wasn't well or had something going on could be exposed to, right?

Dr. LIMB: Sort of. You know, MRI is a way that we can basically image the brain, and it's usually used for anatomic purposes. Now, a functional MRI is actually a way to modify the scan so that rather than looking at the anatomy of the brain, you're looking at the function, the blood flow of the brain. Trying to find areas that are highly active or underactive within the brain and, you know, in response to a given task.

STAMBERG: So when you conduct the study, how do you do it? Somebody's got something sitting on their head while they're playing their trumpet, and you're watching some screen somewhere, the waves on it?

Dr. LIMB: Actually a little worse than that for the subject. They're actually lying on their backs, their heads are in a kind of a cage, they're looking up at a mirror, which is pointed to another mirror, which is pointing to their thighs. And then on their thighs they had a plastic piano keyboard, which is safe for MRI purposes. And they were looking through this mirror at their fingers on this piano keyboard and then able to hear. They also had headphones on to boot.

STAMBERG: Boy, I'll tell you, that sure would spark my creativity to no end.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Good heavens. So, what did you find out? What is going on in the heads of musicians when they improvise?

Dr. LIMB: What we did was took six professional jazz piano players and had them play either something very memorized or something that they totally made up on the spot. We in fact wrote a novel melody of blues for them and had them improvise on the blues.

And when we looked at their brain activity, we found a really characteristic pattern and when they were improvising, their brain went into this state. We call it a dissociated frontal activity state.

STAMBERG: Oh phooey. Just call it wonderful and magic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: But what you're saying is, it really shifts, the brain does, into a different gear sort of, huh?

Dr. LIMB: We think so. You know, there's this notion that, and a musician like Coltrane when he's playing "Giant Steps" there, he's in the zone. I mean, he is far away from, you know, the concerns of everyday life, and he is in some other place where all of these novel ideas are flowing and pouring out of him. You know, how does he do that?

Well, I think the brain really alters itself into this kind of creative mind frame where its purpose at that moment is to generate novelty and to decrease inhibition.

STAMBERG: I wonder what you think about something like this:

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: This is the great Ella Fitzgerald, the queen of scat. And scat singing, that's improvised. So does the brain go through the same processes during scatting?

Dr. LIMB: You know, our study was only of piano players, but I think the process we were studying was really independent of the actual instrument of choice. You know, conversation, people improvise conversation all the time. You and I right now are improvising this conversation to a certain extent. And I think that in, like, most creative modes just scat singing, which is, you know, it's really she's using her voice like any other instrument, she's very likely using the same exact types of neuromechanisms.

STAMBERG: Do you still play your saxophone, Dr. Limb?

Dr. LIMB: I do. All the time.

STAMBERG: And has your playing changed now that you've learned more about all of this and what's…has it made you more self-conscious, a better improviser, a less creative improviser, any effect?

Dr. LIMB: You know, it's funny. A lot of people have asked me if studying something like jazz takes away the magic of it for me. And to me, it doesn't at all. And in a lot of ways, it augments it. Because I'm just stunned by all the things that the brain can do. It's just a remarkable structure that allows us to generate beauty and spontaneity.

As far as my own playing goes, no, I'm more and more fascinated by music every day. And in fact it's bordering on an obsession, to be quite frank.

STAMBERG: Uh-oh. Thank you very much. Dr. Charles Limb is a hearing specialist at Johns Hopkins University. The study he did with Allen Brown was sponsored by the National Institute on Deafness and other communication disorders at the National Institutes of Health. Thank you, sir.

Dr. LIMB: Thank you very much.

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