Your brain on improv



While many brain scans of musicians have been done in the research lab, it is virtually impossible to scan the brain of a musician on stage during performance.   But Charles Limb has come closer than anyone else to replicating an actual performance situation in the lab.

Limb is a hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins who also studies the way the brain creates.  For the past several years he has been watching jazz piano players in an fMRI scanner to see what parts of the brain are involved as they improvise.   This has led to further study of rappers in a scanner, all of which you can watch in this wonderful TEDx talk from 2010.  (Limb continues to study jazz, rap and creativity and no doubt more insights will be coming in the future.)

2 responses to “Your brain on improv”

  1. Bruce Avatar

    I noticed that an enormous increase in activity occurred in the cerebellum not only in the rapper, but also in the jazz musician. These activations were even greater than those in the frontal cortex. In view of the many non-motor functions of the cerebellum, including language, I believe that Limb incorrectly relegated them to motor effects. The cerebellum has been associated with higher intelligence, which certainly includes creativity.

    1. Avatar

      But as an ancillillary to the motor activity. I predict that doing these same studies on an abacus expert would yield similar results. The cerebellum MAY play some role in language production – MS patients with cerebellar lesions usually have problems with control of cadence, amplitude and rhythm. As to original thinking, the question is moot. Seeing those cerebellar scans, I realized I was justified in saying that Paavali Jumpanen has a better cerebellum than do I!