Your Brain on Improv

Charles Limb and Allen Braun

            Charles Limb, a hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins, has been working with Allen Braun to investigate music and the act of improvisation.  He did a series of experiments utilizing functional MRI technology to see what happens in the brain when we create.

The Science of Creativity

            As Limb states, “The science of innovation is at its infancy. . . truly we know very little about how we are able to be creative”.  When you think about how every part of our modern civilization has been created by man, and the fact that we, according to Limb, are just now beginning to attempt to study the act of creation, one can only think that behavioral science needs to stop being bias towards the arts and begin seeing creativity as an innate need of our species.  However, Limb’s philosophy and experiments with improv/creation are another step forward towards understanding the neurological processes that humans undergo when engaging in the act of creating music.  As he states, “You can study creativity by using science.  Artistic creativity is a neurologic product that can be examined using rigorous scientific methods.”

Charles Limb and Allen Braun’s Jazz Paradigm

            Using complex jazz improv, professional musicians, functional MRI technology, a 35-note keyboard, Limb sets out to examine the neurological process of musical improvisation.  The featured experiment essentially examined what would happen in the brain when professional jazz musicians played a memorized and overly learnt jazz solo, and then what would happen when the musicians spontaneously improvised in a way that is matched in terms of lower level sensory motor features. 

            Limb and Braun first examined the amount of notes played to see if the musicians were just playing more notes during the improvisation.  However, that was not the case.  Limb and Braun’s findings, through the use of MRI technology and contrast mapping, actually found that brain activity was noticeable different during the two conditions.   For instance, when the musicians were playing the memorized solo, the prefrontal cortex was activated; however, when the musicians were improvising, Limb and Braun saw the medial prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain thought to be self-expression and the autobiographical area – become intensified and activated, and the lateral prefrontal cortex (known to be a part of self-monitoring) become deactivated.  Utilizing this data, Limb and Braun hypothesized that to be creative you need to have a disassociation in your frontal lobe, so that you’re not inhibited to the new creative nerve impulses.

Music as Language

            In another experiment, Limb and Braun recorded the contrast mapping through MRI technology of a jazz duet, in which two musicians were improvising back and forth through musical interplay.  The subject’s Broca area lit up, which is thought to be associated through self-expression and language.  Limb and Brown make the correlation between jazz improv interplay and freestyle rap.  The experiment is phenomenal in that Brown and Limb make a fascinating comparison using MRI technology. They reported that language areas again lit up, and a noted level of heightened brain activity, during improv in comparison to rote memorization. 

            This makes perfect sense, because language is our main source of self-expression.  When you add music to spontaneous language it seems logically that you would see a heightened level of activity in the brain.  Adding the element of unknown word cues or demands to this task would further increase the difficulty level causing more neurons to fire.