Charles Limb is a professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Medicine who has a sideline in brain research; he's also on the faculty at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. He wants to know what happens in our brains when we play piano. Simple: stick a musician in an fMRI machine, and see what happens.
Not so simple, actually. The machines are magnetic, so Limb had a special keyboard made using no magnetic metal parts. "You're laying on your back and he's got a double mirror," says Mike Pope, a jazz pianist who participated in the study. "Your head is in a cradle kind of thing – a cage, actually – you're crammed in there. Your knees are up in the air a little bit and you're seeing the keyboard laying on your knees. They shove you all the way into the tube and you're just in there, just enough movement to move your arm, essentially."
The conditions are hardly conducive to a great performance, but quality isn't the point. It's the design of Limb's study that is innovative. He has a pianist first play scales; then play a learned melody over a backing track; and then improvise over the track. This way, he separates out the creative part from the more rote aspects of a performance. He studies the images to see what's changing in the brain during these distinct musical tasks.
"When you transition from a memorized state to a creative state," says Limb, hot spots appear in the prefrontal cortex; they "imply that there is a self-expressive or autobiographical region that's active" here during these improvisations. At the same time, "There's this broad shutdown of activity that's occurring in the lateral prefrontal cortex, what we call deactivation ... One of its main roles is conscious self-monitoring and regulation of output so it matches an intended effect." Expression plus deinhibition is what Mike Pope calls "getting out of your own way."
Limb is intrigued by the possibility that his research could lead to creativity-enhancing drugs (as opposed to drugs currently used that heighten alertness, for example, or that dampen inhibition – like booze). "We are going to have interventions, whether they are pills or other sort of commonly available things, that are going to specifically affect the way our creative circuitry works. I don't know if it'll be during my lifetime or not, but I'm quite sure that's going to happen one day. And I think we'd be foolish as a scientific community to ignore it. I mean, creativity – you probably can't get to a more important basic process by which we evolve."
(Originally aired: November 23, 2012)
Video: Charles Limb, "Your Brain on Improv"