Jim Fleming : Charles Limb is a surgeon and a musician who researches the way musical creativity works in the brain. In a series of ground-breaking music experiments he put jazz musicians inside an fMRI, to find out what the brain does during musical improvisation. The renowned bass player Mike Pope is one of his research subjects. That's him playing right now.
Anne Strainchamps explores the science and the music.
Anne Strainchamps: Mike, that is such a great version of the way you look tonight, you guys sound like you're really cooking. How much of that is rehearsed and how much is improvised?
Mike Pope: That arrangement was written, I mean in terms of that counter line, that ba baap da dii daa thing, and of course the melody, those two thing were written very much in the way that like a two-part Bach invention or something on a much simpler level, would be written. And then the solo sections and the bridge, when it starts to just swing, it's written but it's not super specific, it's just you know general chord changes and melody, and the bass line’s being made up and chords are specifically made up, it's just a skeleton of stuff written.
Strainchamps: So Charles, listening to it, is this the sound of musical genius to you?
Charles Limb: It's pretty cool, isn't it? It's kinda typical to me of how Mike thinks, meaning that you start with something familiar and known and you take it to a place that is completely unexpected. I think that is all what jazz is about. I think every jazz musician is trying to squeeze something out of themselves that is new and unexpected and better than what they've heard or played before.
Strainchamps: This is the kind of music you've began investigating in your science lab. What are the kinds of questions that led you there? What is it you heard or wondered about in music like this?
Limb: For me, it has to be about the mystery of who we are, I mean how can we create these things? How do we generate novelty? And so what we've tried to design a series of experiments that allow us to look at the brain state, in which when one is able to play music which is already a high level kind of cognitive activity on many levels, versus play something they're generating spontaneously or improvising and so the experiments are really designed to get at that difference. What changes in the brain from doing something memorized or over-learned and transition to something improvised or created on the spot?
Strainchamps: And so you put jazz musicians inside an fMRI and said make music?
Limb: Something like that. I mean to a certain extent…there's a bunch of different experiments, you know. Jazz players first of all, If you put them in a scanner with the piano, they'll do that anyway, even before - -while they're setting up, put a jazz piano down there in this environment, put the piano on their lap, give them a set of headphones, and you go into the control room, before you've even sat down to turn on your machines, they're already improvising, I mean it just happens all the time.
Really what we're doing is trying to set up a construct where we're in fact measuring brain activity in a pretty controlled way, yet to them doesn't feel that controlled because what they're doing is something they do all the time in music, and that's to either play a melody that they know or to improvise on that melody. I think what is lost here is how remarkable a transformation neurologically that is.
Strainchamps: Okay, so I have to say I've been inside an MRI scanner and there's not much room in that little tunnel.
Limb: That's right, no, it's tight.
Strainchamps: Mike how do you play music in that little there?
Pope: As my father would say, with great difficulty.
Strainchamps: What are you actually playing? Is it a tiny, little keyboard?
Pope: It's a keyboard that Charles developed; it needs to not have any ferrous metal in it obviously, in order to be operated in the presence of that strong magnet.
Limb : I'll tell you for me, that piano keyboard took about 2 years to develop together with an engineer, and the day it actually worked, I remember this very clearly, I couldn't believe that it actually worked without artifacts or some sort of glitch. I was literally like amazed, I was like oh my God, this thing is actually working. And then I kinda paused, I was like now what?
So there was a series of experiments, the first one was literally to improvise on a 12 bar blues, or played a memorized melody to the same 12 bar blues. So that was the first experiment for us, that was kinda neat for us. So the one that Mike alluded to earlier was sort of a follow up experiment, where rather than just have one musician play the blues, was to have two musicians. One inside the scanner whose brain was being measured, and another one outside the scanner who's playing back and forth in a kinda of trading fours paradigm, so we could look at the brain mechanisms behind a musical conversation.
Strainchamps: Did you see a difference in brain activity?
Limb: We absolutely saw really neat differences in brain activity, so in the first situation when the solo musician is just improvising, when you start improvising as opposed to memorizing, your brain changes remarkably and one of the key changes is in the frontal lobes. We found a large part of the frontal lobe shut down, and this is where the self monitoring, self inhibitory region. And we had this other area turn up, which was a sorta autobiographical, self referential area, so we had what we call a dissociative state of brain activity where one area went up and one area went down in the frontal lobes that was characterizing all the improvisational states.
Strainchamps: So what is this autobiographical area that lights up?
Limb: That is the medial prefrontal cortex; it's kind of a mid-line structure, meaning that it's sorta in front of the brain, towards the center. This part of the brain is very active when you're doing nothing for example. So if you're doing a task, in between the tasks it's very active, because it's sort of the part of your brain that is active when you're not actually doing anything in particular. It's called a default network and so this default network is sorta involved in things such as telling a story about yourself, an autobiographical narrative.
Also, if you have a musically evoked memory, meaning you hear a song and it reminds you of when you were 10, that area of the brain tends to be active. And so that's what I mean by self-referential, almost an inwardly directed part of the brain.
Strainchamps: So what does it mean that that's the area of the brain that seems to be most active when musical improvisation is going on?
Limb: We're interpreting this as meaning is that when you're improvising, you're telling your musical story. You are using your own voice, your own signature, your life experiences, your musical background, your skills to tell this musical story. And that's why it is autobiographical without using words when you're improvising, and also you really are trying to generate more ideas, new ideas rather than shut them down, you kind wanna turn on the faucet, rather than turn off the faucet, and so I think that's part of why these self monitoring areas turn off, because you're less concerned with making a mistake than you are with not playing safely. I mean really the goal is to go somewhere you haven't been before musically.
Strainchamps: Mike, does that resonate for you? When you're improvising, does it feel to you as though if it's a slightly different brain state?
Pope: Yeah, it undoubtedly is. The sensation that I have when I play is that my consciousness is essentially a conductor and the motor nervous system is an orchestra, because the consciousness, the part that does inhibit, the part that's contemplative and all that stuff, can't do a good job of really making or playing music, it's not what it's there to do. I know I mean I've had experiences of where I've played music and I've reacted to things that I've heard before I was conscious of fact that they had happen. I've actually played something in response to something I've heard until later when I thought about it.
Strainchamps: So when you're improvising, are you thinking?
Pope: I'm thinking but it's not linear thought, I'm not thinking along as I go, you know what I mean? I'm thinking of a myriad of things, some of which may have nothing to do with music, I might be going “oh man, did I feed the meter?” Whatever you know, who knows, again it's not linear thought.
Strainchamps: Does it feel good?
Pope: Yeah, it should. Yeah. I mean when it's right. I mean one of the things about music that to me, the thing that makes music not feel good is when there's no communication at all, that's the thing that makes it sorta sterile and takes the life out of it.
Limb: Well that's actually why we did that experiment, where we had two musicians play back and forth because we wanted to see what happens in the brain when you have this communication musically, actually these results were really hot off impressed me, we're just actually analyzing them but they've been really neat. We're definitely seeing languages areas in the brain, classical language areas in the brain lighting up when you're having a musical exchange that's improvised, not a musical exchange that is memorized.
Pope: I believe that absolutely personally, I bet 100% believe that to be true.
Limb: Well that's true and you're right for sure. I saw that the other day.
Strainchamps: Does it feel like you're having a conversation when you're playing with another musician?
Pope: Yeah it absolutely does. I even remember experiences earlier on, when I was 16-17 years old, doing lot of playing. I remember one experience in particular when I had to do a gig, it was like I played real late the night before and had to play super early the next day, and I was extremely, extremely tired, and I remember almost sort of hallucinating words to what I was playing, you know what I mean, I was so exhausted, I was closing my eyes and I was really enthralled in what I was doing. And I can remember almost actually thinking a stream of words, not quite, but when you're in a dream state, or near sleep state, you think that you're thinking of words, and they're not actually words but they're just mumbo jumbo, I don't know if it used to happen to you, but it used to happen to me as a kid a lot. And I'd just wake up and be like “What was that?” That was the coolest word, it was the coolest way to say that, I could never think of it, it probably wasn't a word at all but it was some other kind of thought, anyway it's interesting.
Strainchamps: Charles, are we - - I have this sense and I know you've said in other places maybe on the cusp of developing a whole new science of creativity, that something very exciting is happening.
Limb: I think so and I hope so. Creativity used to be something that artists, theorists, philosophers thought about more than scientists, I think scientists viewed it as kinda off limits, or maybe too difficult to get to, because scientists by nature are reductionists, and we wanna start with the building blocks and add one little piece to the next until we understand the whole thing. So I think what's happening now is we have methods now that enables us to do that we weren't able to do 20 years ago, 30 years ago. Functional MRI being one of them, but not the only one.
And so with these new methods we can really approach a whole new range of cognitive questions that I think get to the nature of art, creativity, genius, insight into a way that is more relevant and maybe more artistically genuine than has been done before.
Strainchamps: Why is it that we humans seek creativity? Why does the brain seek creativity? Do we need it?
Pope: Does everyone's brain seek creativity, Charles? I mean I don't know.
Limb: I've wondered this question a lot, meaning - - I think it's another way to translate this as : what is the biological reward, or the neurological reward we get when we recognize the novelty in something?
And we have this all the time, a sense of delight, in jazz when you hear experience something unexpected or new, or when you're at the museum and you see a pin and say wow look at that. I can't describe it as anything else but a neurological endorphin thing that you get where you think to yourself, "Huh, I just had a eureka moment that was induced by this other person's insight", and so I think there is a biological basis to this, it has to do with the very core of how we survive as a species, I mean we need to innovate and adapt in order to survive. If we don't, if we never evolve, we perish. So I think we actually are hard wired to be attracted to new solutions.
Fleming: Charles Limb is a hearing specialist and surgeon at John Hopkins. He performs cochlea implants on people who have lost their hearing. He's also on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music
Mike Pope is a celebrated jazz bassist; his most recent solo album was 'Lay of the Land'.
To find out more about the music and the science, visit our website at ttbook.org.