What Does A Creative Brain Look Like?

In his TEDTalk, Dr. Charles Limb talks about his groundbreaking research on creativity and the brain. He did this by putting musicians in an fMRI and watching them make up music on the spot. In the last ten years, he has been working with jazz pianists to find out some amazing new things about how the brain makes art. His research has recently expanded into the hip-hop genre. He talked to the TED Blog about his new research and his regular job.

Why did you choose to learn about hip-hop?

It just worked out that way. I didn’t listen to a lot of hip-hop; I was more into jazz and classical music. But I work in Baltimore, grew up near New York, and went to medical school in New Haven, and I’ve always thought that hip-hop is very much street music from the people, just like jazz used to be. It’s a kind of music that goes against the grain, just like jazz used to be. Rap has taken over or replaced a lot of the same social roles for urban youth in some ways. There are a lot of interesting musical similarities between hip-hop and jazz, such as the emphasis on rhythm, the use of improvisation, and the fact that many jazz musicians don’t have formal training but are still very good at what they do. The more I thought about jazz and the brain, the more rap seemed like an obvious next step.

Hip-hop has never been studied by scientists. I can’t learn much about it from other studies or existing scientific literature.

And I have to say, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with this study, just from a personal point of view. When we were making our beats and our stimuli and trying to plan the experiment, we had to try to rap ourselves. It changes the lab a lot!

Do you think there is a big difference between people who like jazz and people who like music with words?

Well, I need to be careful because the study isn’t over yet. We’re still looking for more rappers to join us.

How will you get rappers to take part in the new study?

I’ve been slowly making my way into the hip-hop scene in Baltimore. Shodekeh is a famous beatboxer who has played with the Baltimore Symphony. I met him at a symposium at the Visionary Art Museum, where we started talking. I actually told him, “I’m thinking about doing a laryngeal study of beatboxing.” He put me in touch with one rapper, and I’ve slowly been getting into the scene through word of mouth. I’ve now talked to about 12 professional freestyle rappers, and about half of them have been studied.

Given that Johns Hopkins is seen as a conservative medical center in an urban area that isn’t part of it, the fact that there is a lab that wants to study hip-hop might be interesting to the community.

I also have to say how thankful the musicians are. They really have a stake in the success of this research. Because they’ve always thought that what they were doing was important, and they’ve been wondering the whole time, “Wow, how am I doing this?” They go into a different state. And what they come up with on the spot is just amazing. They are fascinated by what they do and how they do it.

In fact, A Class said something interesting to me. At the end of the study, I asked him in an interview, “Is there anything else you’d like to say?” He suddenly got very serious and said, “Hip-hop has a bad name. Give us a chance, please. We are very nice people with a lot to say.”

I’d love it if we could get some really famous freestyle rappers for other topics. If Eminem wants to take part in this study, I will fly him over!

Why do you think people are so interested in the way you study?

Before, there wasn’t a way to do this kind of study. Functional imaging of the brain is a fairly new technique. When I started my first jazz study in 2003, there was no other study I could compare it to. It’s one of those things that will keep changing.

I didn’t get a chance to talk about this during my TEDx talk, but functional MRI is just one way to study the brain. Like any other method, it has its pros and cons. I don’t think that fMRI will tell us everything we need to know about how creativity works in the brain, but it is a great place to start.

When I studied jazz for the first time, I did it mostly for myself. I was just interested. I wasn’t trying to come up with something new in science or even trying to make a point. What people thought of the results didn’t really matter to me. So when it came out and the study got a lot of attention, that surprised me; I realized that other people were interested in the same things I was. This research covers a wide range of topics, which is not common in science.

It’s also important to point out that the lab and improvisation don’t go together naturally and that it’s hard to study music in a way that musicians find comfortable and realistic. In the end, I’m trying to do small scientific experiments on a big topic, not get the researchers to make art masterpieces, though I’d love to study that someday too! I’ve been a musician all my life, so I know how much ideas, training, time, effort, and focus go into a real creative act. In the science that I do, I try to be very careful and respectful of the arts. I hope artists will understand this because I think it is important and hard. This work is very easy to criticize, but I think some critics may miss this basic idea that my whole work is based on.

One of the main problems is that it’s hard to get money for this kind of research. Scientists don’t look into this kind of area very often. Scientists tend to be more conservative than artists because that’s how the field works. And with the way funding works now, it will be hard to get money to study creativity. It’s not caused by a disease. And obviously, when you pay for one thing, you can’t pay for something else. So this kind of research doesn’t get a lot of help.

The idea that there is a “crisis in creativity” is popular right now in discussions about the problems with education in America all over the country. I think a small group of researchers from many fields will work together to solve these problems. Scientists who study these things are often also artists at heart. On one level, I’m more interested in music than in science. I see it through the eyes of an artist. And I think this is why people might find my research interesting. They think it’s a good piece of art.

How has this project made you like music more, or do you go home at night and say, “I’ll never listen to piano jazz again”?

No, no, never. It’s funny that you should ask because when we do a jazz study, we write our own music in the lab so that the piece is something the subjects have never heard before and doesn’t remind them of anything. When we’re writing the piece, we need to learn by heart, and I know that we’ll hear it hundreds of times in the lab. So I tell the people in the lab that whatever they write, they should be able to listen to it over and over again until they get sick of it. And some of what we’ve written is pretty catchy! In fact, I think that at one of his gigs, one of the jazz musicians played a research melody. It kind of stayed with him.

Some people think that this kind of analysis will hurt art, but that’s not true. There are so many different parts to music. And I still listen to music like a musician when I do. I can get more intellectual about music and analyze it more, but that hasn’t changed the way I feel about it or how much I enjoy it. In fact, it’s gotten bigger. Like any other subject, the more you learn about it, the more you fall in love with it.

But when I told my wife that I was going to use functional brain imaging to study jazz, she asked, “You’re going to do what?” Of all the things you could do for your career that aren’t sensible. I spent my whole life training to be a surgeon.

Your work as a surgeon has some interesting, almost poetic ties to this piece.

I’m a cochlear implantation specialist, a type of surgery for people with trouble hearing. I also treat all kinds of ear problems, from chronic infections to cancer of the temporal bone. Cochlear implantation is a way to help deaf people hear again, and I study how music sounds to deaf people who have had cochlear implants. The bottom line is that they don’t hear it very well. It’s hard to hear pitch, and it’s hard to hear timbre. We’re trying to figure out why people don’t understand music well and how to make it better.

I’ve had a lot of good luck. I’m really interested in what I’m studying, so it’s not just a hobby. When I go to the lab, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do than study music. It’s the perfect place for me. I’m thinking about what I’d think about when I’m on vacation. I know I’m a very lucky person. And I don’t think it’s a given.

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