What Does A Creative Brain Look Like?

Oct 7, 2014
Originally published on September 25, 2015 9:27 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Source of Creativity.

About Charles Limb's TED Talk

What happens in the brain during musical improv? Researcher Charles Limb scanned the brains of jazz musicians to find out.

About Charles Limb

Dr. Charles Limb is an Associate Professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery, as well as faculty at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. He combines his two passions to study the way the brain creates and perceives music. He's a hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins who performs cochlear implantations. In his free time, he plays sax, piano and bass.

In search of a better understanding of how the mind processes complex auditory stimuli such as music, Dr. Limb has been working with Dr. Allen Braun to look at the brains of improvising musicians and study what parts of the brain are involved when a musician is really in the groove.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and today on the show, the source of creativity - ideas about where it comes from, why we all have it and how to find it. So think of someone you consider a creative genius.

CHARLES LIMB: (Laughter) That's as if, well...

RAZ: This, by the way, is Charles Limb.

LIMB: I would really hate to say one, but Bach comes to mind.

RAZ: Now, what if you could watch the creative process actually unfold inside Bach's brain? We'll that's sort of what Charles Limb is trying to do.

LIMB: I run a music cognition lab at Johns Hopkins, where I try to understand how it is that creative people both hear music but also produce music.

RAZ: And Bach, let's go back to Bach for a second. I mean, why Bach? What was it about him?

LIMB: I mean, it's not that recent that Bach was writing his music. Yet, it sounds interesting and compelling and exciting and there's a certain - a lot of ideas were flowing out of this very, very creative man.

RAZ: And what Charles is trying to figure out is where creativity comes from and if it's possible to locate the exact place in the brain where it lives. But his challenge is how to capture the moment, the precise moment, when creativity happens.


RAZ: This is the music of Keith Jarrett, the legendary jazz pianist. And he plays entire concerts in front of thousands of people completely improvised.

LIMB: What's notable to me when you watch Keith Jarrett, or really any other amazing jazz musician, is it's almost like turning on a faucet. It's just a kind of a flood of ideas come pouring out.

KEITH JARRETT: What actually happens is so much in the moment, so much of a nanosecond.

RAZ: This is Keith Jarrett. I asked him about those live performances.

JARRETT: And I know a lot of people probably are skeptical about whether they really are always improvised. I just - I, myself, feel skeptical even though I know they were.

RAZ: And that means that when it comes to creativity research, jazz improvisers, like Keith Jarrett, are the perfectly ideal research subjects for people like Charles Limb.

LIMB: How many times can you go and say, huh, we're going to watch genius being created in front of us?

RAZ: Here's Charles on the TED stage.


LIMB: I've always - just as a listener, as just a fan - I listen to that and I'm just astounded. I think how can this possibly be? How can the brain generate that much information, that much music, spontaneously? And so I set out with this concept, scientifically, that artistic creativity, it's magical but it's not magic, meaning that it's a product from the brain. There's not too many brain-dead people creating art. And so with this notion that artistic creativity is, in fact, a neurologic product, I took this thesis that we could study it just like we study any other complex neurologic process. And I think there's some sub-questions there that I put there. Is it truly possible to study creativity scientifically? And I think that's a good question. And I'll tell you that most scientific studies of music, they're very dense and when you actually go through them, it's very hard to recognize the music in it. So it brings a second question. Why should scientists study creativity? Maybe we're not the right people to do it. Well, and maybe, but I will say that from a scientific perspective we talked a lot about innovation today. The science of innovation - how much we understand about how the brain is able to innovate - is in its infancy. And truly, we know very little about how we are able to be creative. And so I think that we're going to see over, the next 10, 20, 30 years, a real science of creativity that's burgeoning and is going to flourish because we now have new methods that can enable us to take this process of something like this, complex jazz improvisation, and study it rigorously.

And so it gets down to the brain. So all of us have this remarkable brain which is poorly understood, to say the least. I think that neuroscientists have much more questions than answers. And I myself, I'm not going to give you many answers today, just ask a lot of questions. And fundamentally, that's what I do in my lab, I ask questions about what is this brain doing to enable us to do this?

RAZ: And so in his lab to answer those questions, Charles brought in a bunch of jazz musicians.

LIMB: Come on in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: May the force be with you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nothing's in your pockets, right Mike?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, nothing's in my pockets.


RAZ: And what he did was, he basically stuck these guys in a functional MRI scanner that was fitted with a keyboard and he told them to jam. And then he watched part of their brains light up on the screen.

LIMB: And so what you're sort of seeing is these hot spots and cold spots of activity, or deactivation.

RAZ: OK. So what Charles observed was that when these guys improvised, very specific parts of their brains would show activity - not too surprising, but then, he noticed something else.

LIMB: The prefrontal cortex of the brain, or a large part of it, was suppressed in activity in a big way, which was linked to - we think - conscious self-monitoring.


LIMB: Now, these are multifunctional areas of the brain. As I like to say, these are not the jazz areas of the brain, right?

They do whole host of things that have to do with self-reflection, introspection, working memory and so forth. Really, consciousness is seated in the frontal lobe. But, we have this combination of an area that's thought to be involved in self-monitoring turning off in and this area that's thought to be autobiographical or self-expressive turning on. And we think, at least in this preliminary - it's one study, it's probably wrong - but it's one study.

We think that at least a reasonable hypothesis is that to be creative you have to have this weird dissociation in your frontal lobe. One area turns on and a big area shuts off so that you're not inhibited so that you're willing to make a stake, so that you're not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses.

And these parts of the brain are really. I mean, so for example, right now I want to make sure I'm not saying something too stupid and so that part of my brain is kind of actively filtering what's coming out of my mouth.


RAZ: It's basically saying don't be creative.

LIMB: Yeah, to a certain extent, make sure that what you say is correct and don't make too many mistakes, that kind of thing.

RAZ: Wow.

LIMB: Where as if the goal were to come up with something new, it would sort of turn off.

RAZ: Yeah.

LIMB: Or, hopefully it would turn off.

RAZ: I mean, if we know that our brains can kind of stifle our creativity, how do we sort of exercise more control over that? Like, how could we somehow manipulate our brain to make sure that it doesn't do that at times when we most need that creativity?

LIMB: So I'll tell you - in the lab this is something we think about all the time, which is, how can we manipulate creativity? And that's a different question than should we manipulate creativity you know 'cause there's a - I think a big debate on whether or not one should. Now, people have been trying to manipulate their own creatively for forever. I mean, whether it's drugs, whether it's meditation, whether its practice. I do think we're heading towards an understanding of the brain were we'll be able to manipulate circuitry linked to creativity and hopefully for the better, meaning...

RAZ: Wow.

LIMB: ...Yeah. I mean, in the same that you take - I think in the same way that you drink a cup coffee in the morning for its neural pharmacologic effects. I think it might be the same way with a creativity pill that you know, it's - hey, it's time work on this piece of music, let me just take this pill that will sort of get me in my groove a little bit more easily. But I think that all people have some ability to enter these flow states with - maybe for some people it comes easier than others - but our brains, I think, are meant to do this because this is how we generate novelty.

RAZ: Everybody has the capacity to be creative.

LIMB: Yeah and it might sound strange or surprising but I tend not to over-romanticize the idea so I think there's a bit of a myth that art is kind of - just comes from some ethereal, you know, land of inspiration and just the lucky few are able to generate it. I mean, most artists that are doing what they do and are good at what they do have been working at their craft for their whole lives. I mean, they're putting hours and hours and hours into learning to play their instrument, or to paint or whatever it might be. I mean, this is something that they're practicing, it's not just magic. The idea that a professional musician can enter a flow state because they've practiced doing it is important.

JARRETT: Oh, absolutely.

RAZ: Once again, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

JARRETT: I have a connection with the instrument due to how long I have played it. It's like almost a talisman but you have to be able to be ready to fall on your face, flat on your face and have failed miserably, like Jennifer Beals in "Flashdance."


JARRETT: You know? She falls over. It's her worst nightmare come true, but what can you do that's worse than that if you're dancing?

RAZ: The idea here is that practice doesn't make you perfect, but it does help you stop thinking that you have to be.

LIMB: Yeah, I think that's true. I would say that any time external influences are interfering with your brain's ability to just generate something new, it is sort of putting an additional cognitive load on your brain that changes the way it's normally meant, I think, to generate new ideas. And you know, I think for art and for high-level flow states, the ability to suppress your own brain may be one of the real hallmarks for what makes somebody great, I think kind of the ability to get out of their way - not just musically but neurologically.

RAZ: Charles Limb runs a music cognition lab at Johns Hopkins. He's also a pretty good musician himself. He knows how to play at least a dozen instruments. Check out his talk at TED.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.