Charles Limb on Music, the Brain and Why We Need to Understand Creativity

Neuroscientist Charles Limb will be at the Kennedy Center for Sound Health in Concert on June 2 and a session titled Jazz, Creativity, and the Brain with pianist Vijay Iyer on June 3. He talks some about his research and interest in exploring the science behind creativity below.

For Charles Limb, music — like life itself — is equal parts rational and emotional. Limb in many ways embodies both sides of that coin. Based at the University of California, San Francisco, he is a skull base surgeon, a neuroscientist, composer and a jazz saxophone player.

Music, he said, can be listened to purely for its emotional content, and that would be more than enough to justify its appreciation. But it could also be understood through its mathematics, for its acoustics or the pitch frequencies and the music theory involved in how those pitches are sequenced. If you happen to be a neuroscientist, Limb said, you want to apply that biological framework to understanding and appreciating music, and that leads you to wonder things like “What happened in John Coltrane’s head that allowed him to improvise at such a high level for such a long time?

Charles Limb

“Every experience one has in life can start to be understood through the lens of the brain. You start to realize that these brains that each of us carries around in our heads are amazing structures that enable all of the activities that fill our lives,” Limb said. “And art is just one great example of this activity — it’s a very compelling one, though, because it links the idea of something that can seem at times ephemeral with a source that is very physical.

Limb has spent much of his career trying to understand music through that neural lens. His research has involved using brain imaging technology to watch what happens in a musician’s brain when they hear music, when they improvise, or when they and another musician trade four bar blues.

Results from the latter study showed that when two musicians traded four bar blues as a sort of musical conversation, there was activation in regions of the brain associated with language, syntax and grammar. The study looking at brain activity during improvisation showed decreased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which often acts as a self-censoring part of the brain, and increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex or “default network,” associated with daydreaming and reflecting on our own emotional state.

This field is very new, and Limb cautions that we have only begun the process to understanding this intersection between music and the brain and that those results — no matter how intriguing — are only scratching the surface of truly comprehending these topics. But for Limb, these are first steps in building a greater understanding of one of the most crucial but least understood brain functions: creativity.

“It’s not much of a stretch to say that creativity may be how we [as a species] have survived and how we will survive,” said Limb. “Yet scientists know very little about how creativity emerged in the brain — in fact surprisingly little.”

Music, he said, is one remarkable form of creativity that allows us to break down the larger scientific question of human creativity into smaller parts. Limb wants to better understand the machinery and neural processes that occur when the brain is acting creatively, both because it is intrinsically important but also because doing so might one day improve our creative abilities.

“If you look at the problems of the 21st century, they’re not going to be solved by memorization of what we learned in the 20th century,” he said. “To me, that is a very compelling argument for why we should understand how it is that the brain comes up with new ideas. If we could describe the circuitry, then we might be able to facilitate that circuitry.”