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The Intersection of Science, Art, Music & Humanities

Genius Music, Creativity and the Brain

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Jazz is pure creativity in action. When you hear great jazz, like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, it has this jaw-dropping quality, and what’s been described as ‘a sound of surprise’ takes place. And you think to yourself, ‘Wow, that’s not just phenomenal music, that’s phenomenal neurobiology. —Charles Limb, MD

Two questions a recent CNN interviewer asked Dr. Limb: Could jazz improvisation be a key to understanding how the brain invents? Could that creativity be studied? Limb's answer, “I have always intuitively understood that the creative process in jazz improvisation is very different than the process of memorization. It is immediately apparent when we play.”

Limb, an accomplished musician himself, recruited jazz musicians to play a memorized song while their brains were scanned inside a functional MRI and then to have them riff during the scan to compare the differences.

“You say ‘go’ and many jazz players can improvise at the drop of a hat, so from an experimental perspective, it’s really easy to study," said Limb, the Chief of the Division of Otology, Neurotology, and Skull Base Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco.


Limb’s research showed that while jazz musicians improvise, the part of the brain that allows humans to express themselves—the medial prefrontal cortex or “default network”—becomes more active. At the same time, the part of the brain responsible for self-inhibition and control, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, becomes dormant. By inhibiting the part of the brain that allows self-criticism, the musicians were able to stay in their creative flow, also known as being '"in the zone." 

“I view this as a neurological description of letting go,” Limb said. “If you’re too self-conscious, it’s very hard to be free creatively.”

Limb’s research has also debunked the myth that right-brained people are less creative. Networks in both the left and right sides of the brain proved to be intimately involved in creativity and change, depending of the type of endeavor, and the stage of the creative process.

Not just all about jazz

Limb also scanned the brains of rap artists as they freestyled and caricature artists as they worked, because both of their brains ramped up the part of the brain that inhibits self-consciousness.

He found that within seconds, experienced caricature artists could sketch any face they were viewing as a caricature, adding that improv comedians' and rap musicians' brains function similarly.

For the arts, successful creative improvisation also appears to be related to expertise, a mastery generated by a lot of hard work. Research suggests that musicians who have devoted hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours to practice seem to more easily get "into the flow."

Limb's bottom line: "Everyone is creative; it’s just a matter of degree." His research suggests that for most, creativity still requires expertise to have enough material to draw on to be exceptionally inventive. 

So find an area that interests you, develop an expertise in that area, and then let go, feel the flow, and start creating and developing something extraordinary.

Ellen Troyer, with Spencer Thornton, MD, David Amess and the Biosyntrx staff

FYI: Jazz improvisation is the process of spontaneously creating fresh melodies over the continuously repeating cycle of chord changes and harmonies of a given tune. 

The music video featured in today's Sunday Morning Stop at the Intersection of Science, Art, Music and Humanities is a classic example of an improvisation master: Miles Davis playing his tonal medicine for heartache "It Never Entered My Mind," composed by Richard Rogers. The lyrics were written by Lorenz Hart.