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Your brain on improv | Charles Limb | TEDxMidAtlantic

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    Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.
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    So I am a surgeon who studies creativity,
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    and I have never had a patient tell me,
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    "I really want you
    to be creative during surgery,"
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    and so I guess
    there's a little bit of irony to it.
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    I will say though that,
    after having done surgery a lot,
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    it's similar to playing
    a musical instrument.
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    And for me, this deep
    and enduring fascination with sound
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    is what led me to both be a surgeon
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    and to study the science
    of sound, particularly music.
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    I'm going to talk
    over the next few minutes
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    about my career
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    in terms of how I'm able to study music
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    and try to grapple
    with all these questions
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    of how the brain is able to be creative.
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    I've done most of this work
    at Johns Hopkins University,
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    and at the National Institute
    of Health where I was previously.
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    I'll go over some science experiments
    and cover three musical experiments.
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    I will start off by playing
    a video for you.
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    This video is of Keith Jarrett,
    who's a well-known jazz improviser
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    and probably the most
    well-known, iconic example
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    of someone who takes improvisation
    to a higher level.
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    And he'll improvise entire concerts
    off the top of his head,
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    and he'll never play it
    exactly the same way again,
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    so as a form of intense creativity,
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    I think this is a great example.
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    And so why don't we go
    and click the video.
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    (Music)
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    (Music ends)
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    It's really a remarkable
    thing that happens there.
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    I've always as a listener, as a fan,
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    I listen to that, and I'm astounded.
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    I think -- how can this possibly be?
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    How can the brain generate
    that much information,
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    that much music, spontaneously?
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    And so I set out
    with this concept, scientifically,
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    that artistic creativity,
    it's magical, but it's not magic,
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    meaning that it's a product of the brain.
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    There's not too many brain-dead
    people creating art.
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    With this notion that artistic creativity
    is in fact a neurologic product,
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    I took this thesis that we could study it
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    just like we study any other
    complex neurologic process,
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    and there are subquestions
    that I put there.
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    Is it possible to study
    creativity scientifically?
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    And I think that's a good question.
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    And I'll tell you that most
    scientific studies of music,
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    they're very dense,
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    and when you go through them,
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    it's very hard to recognize
    the music in it.
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    In fact, they seem to be
    unmusical entirely
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    and to miss the point of the music.
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    This brings the second question:
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    Why should scientists study creativity?
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    Maybe we're not the right people to do it.
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    (Laughter)
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    Well it may be, but I will say that,
    from a scientific perspective,
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    we talked a lot about innovation today,
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    the science of innovation,
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    how much we understand
    about how the brain is able to innovate
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    is in its infancy,
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    and truly, we know very little
    about how we are able to be creative.
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    I think that we're going to see,
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    over the next 10, 20, 30 years,
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    a real science of creativity
    that's burgeoning
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    and is going to flourish,
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    Because we now have new methods
    that can enable us
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    to take this process
    like complex jazz improvisation,
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    and study it rigorously.
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    So it gets down to the brain.
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    All of us have this remarkable brain,
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    which is poorly understood,
    to say the least.
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    I think that neuroscientists
    have more questions than answers,
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    and I'm not going
    to give you answers today,
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    just ask a lot of questions.
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    And that's what I do in my lab.
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    I ask questions about what is the brain
    doing to enable us to do this.
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    This is the main method that I use.
    This is functional MRI.
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    If you've been in an MRI scanner,
    it's very much the same,
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    but this one is outfitted in a special way
    to not just take pictures of your brain,
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    but to also take pictures
    of active areas of the brain.
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    The way that's done is by the following:
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    There's something called BOLD imaging,
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    which is Blood Oxygen
    Level Dependent imaging.
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    When you're in an fMRI scanner,
    you're in a big magnet
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    that's aligning your molecules
    in certain areas.
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    When an area of the brain is active,
    meaning a neural area is active,
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    it gets blood flow shunted to that area.
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    That blood flow causes an increase
    in local blood to that area
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    with a deoxyhemoglobin
    change in concentration.
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    Deoxyhemoglobin can be detected by MRI,
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    whereas oxyhemoglobin can't.
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    So through this method of inference --
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    and we're measuring blood flow,
    not neural activity --
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    we say that an area of the brain
    that's getting more blood
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    was active during a particular task,
    and that's the crux of how fMRI works.
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    And it's been used since the '90s
    to study really complex processes.
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    I'm going to review a study that I did,
    which was jazz in an fMRI scanner.
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    It was done with a colleague,
    Alan Braun, at the NIH.
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    This is a short video
    of how we did this project.
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    (Video) Charles Limb: This is a plastic
    MIDI piano keyboard
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    that we use for the jazz experiments.
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    And it's a 35-key keyboard
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    designed to fit both inside the scanner,
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    be magnetically safe,
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    have minimal interference
    that would contribute to any artifact,
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    and have this cushion
    so that it can rest on the players' legs
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    while they're lying down in the scanner,
    playing on their back.
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    It works like this --
    this doesn't actually produce any sound.
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    It sends out what's called
    a MIDI signal --
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    or a Musical Instrument
    Digital Interface --
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    through these wires into the box
    and then the computer,
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    which then trigger
    high-quality piano samples like this.
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    (Music)
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    Now I'm going to demo it for you.
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    I'm using two mirrors to see my fingers.
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    (Music)
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    This is improvized.
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    (Music ends)
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    OK, so it works.
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    And so through this piano keyboard,
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    we have the means to take
    a musical process and study it.
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    So what do you do now that you have
    this cool piano keyboard?
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    You can't just say,
    "It's great we have a keyboard."
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    We have to come up
    with a scientific experiment.
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    The experiment
    really rests on the following:
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    What happens in the brain during something
    that's memorized and over-learned,
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    and what happens in the brain
    during something
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    that is spontaneously
    generated, or improvised,
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    in a way that's matched motorically
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    and in terms of lower-level
    sensory motor features?
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    I have here what we call the paradigms.
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    There's a scale paradigm, which is playing
    a scale up and down, memorized,
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    then there's improvising on a scale,
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    quarter notes, metronome, right hand --
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    scientifically very safe,
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    but musically really boring.
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    Then there's the bottom one,
    which is called the jazz paradigm.
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    So we brought professional
    jazz players to the NIH,
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    and we had them memorize
    this piece of music on the lower-left,
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    which is what you heard me playing --
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    and we had them improvise
    to the same chord changes.
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    And if you can hit
    that lower-right sound icon,
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    that's an example
    of what was recorded in the scanner.
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    (Music)
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    (Music ends)
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    In the end, it's not the most
    natural environment,
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    but they're able to play real music.
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    And I've listened to that solo 200 times,
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    and I still like it.
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    And the musicians
    were comfortable in the end.
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    We first measured the number of notes.
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    Were they playing more notes
    when they were improvising?
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    That was not what was going on.
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    And then we looked at the brain activity.
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    I will try to condense this for you.
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    These are contrast maps that are showing
    subtractions between what changes
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    when you're improvising
    vs. when you're doing something memorized.
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    In red is an area that's active
    in the prefrontal cortex,
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    the frontal lobe of the brain,
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    and in blue is this area
    that was deactivated.
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    So we had this focal area
    called the medial prefrontal cortex
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    that went way up in activity.
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    We had this broad patch of area
    called the lateral prefrontal cortex
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    that went way down in activity,
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    I'll summarize that for you.
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    These are multifunctional
    areas of the brain,
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    these are not the jazz areas of the brain.
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    They do a whole host of things
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    that have to do with self-reflection,
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    introspection, working memory etc.
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    Really, consciousness is seated
    in the frontal lobe.
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    But we have this combination
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    of an area that's thought to be involved
    in self-monitoring, turning off,
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    and this area that's thought
    to be autobiographical,
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    or self-expressive, turning on.
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    We think, at least in this preliminary --
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    it's one study; it's probably wrong,
    but it's one study --
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    (Laughter)
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    we think that at least
    a reasonable hypothesis
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    is that, to be creative,
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    you should have this weird dissociation
    in your frontal lobe.
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    One area turns on,
    and a big area shuts off,
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    so that you're not inhibited,
    you're willing to make mistakes,
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    so that you're not constantly
    shutting down
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    all of these new generative impulses.
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    Now a lot of people know that music
    is not always a solo activity --
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    sometimes it's done communicatively.
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    The next question was:
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    What happens when musicians
    are trading back and forth,
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    something called "trading fours,"
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    which is something they do
    normally in a jazz experiment.
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    So this is a 12-bar blues,
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    and I've broken it
    down into four-bar groups,
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    so you would know how you would trade.
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    We brought a musician
    into the scanner, same way,
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    had them memorize this melody
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    then had another musician
    out in the control room
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    trading back and forth interactively.
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    This is another video
    I'll show you of this.
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    (Music)
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    So this is a musician, Mike Pope,
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    one of the world's best bassists
    and a fantastic piano player.
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    (Music)
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    He's now playing the piece
    that we just saw
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    a little better than I wrote it.
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    (Video) CL: Mike, come on in.
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    Mike Pope: May the force be with you.
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    Nurse: Nothing in your pockets, Mike?
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    MP: No. Nothing's in my pockets.
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    CL: You have to have the right
    attitude to agree to do it.
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    (Laughter)
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    It's kind of fun, actually.
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    (Music)
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    Now we're playing back and forth.
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    He's in there.
    You can see his legs up there.
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    (Music)
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    And then I'm in the control room here,
    playing back and forth.
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    (Music)
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    (Music ends)
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    (Video) Mike Pope:
    This is a pretty good representation
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    of what it's like.
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    And it's good that it's not too quick.
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    The fact that we do it over and over again
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    lets you acclimate to your surroundings.
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    So the hardest thing for me
    was the kinesthetic thing,
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    looking at my hands through two mirrors,
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    laying on my back,
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    and not able to move at all
    except for my hand.
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    That was challenging.
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    But again --
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    there were moments, for sure --
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    (Laughter)
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    there were moments of real, honest-to-God
    musical interplay, for sure.
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    CL: At this point,
    I'll take a few moments.
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    So what you're seeing here --
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    and I'm doing a cardinal sin in science,
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    which is to show you preliminary data.
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    This is one subject's data.
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    This is, in fact, Mike Pope's data.
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    So what am I showing you here?
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    When he was trading fours with me,
    improvising vs. memorized,
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    his language areas lit up,
    his Broca's area,
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    in the inferior frontal gyrus on the left.
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    He had it also homologous on the right.
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    This is an area thought to be
    involved in expressive communication.
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    This whole notion
    that music is a language --
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    maybe there's a neurologic
    basis to it after all,
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    and we can see it when two musicians
    are having a musical conversation.
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    So we've done this on eight subjects now,
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    and we're getting all the data together,
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    hopefully we'll have something
    to say about it meaningfully.
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    Now when I think about improvisation
    and the language, what's next?
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    Rap, of course, rap -- freestyle.
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    I've always been fascinated by freestyle.
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    And let's play this video.
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    (Video) Mos Def: Brown skin I be,
    standing five-ten I be
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    Rockin' it when I be, in your vicinity
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    Whole-style synergy, recognize symmetry
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    Go and try to injure me,
    broke 'em down chemically
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    Ain't the number 10 MC,
    talk about how been I be
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    Styled it like Kennedy,
    late like a 10 to three
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    When I say when I be,
    girls say bend that key cut
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    CL: So there's a lot of analogy
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    between what takes place
    in freestyle rap and jazz.
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    There are a lot of correlates
    between the two forms of music,
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    I think, in different time periods,
    in lot of ways,
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    rap serves the same social function
    that jazz used to serve.
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    So how do you study rap scientifically?
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    And my colleagues think I'm crazy,
    but I think it's very viable.
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    This is what you do:
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    You have a freestyle artist come
    and memorize a rap
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    that you write for them,
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    that they've never heard before,
    and then you have them freestyle.
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    So I told my lab members
    that I would rap for TED,
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    and they said, "No, you won't."
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    And then I thought --
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    (Laughter)
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    (Applause)
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    But here's the thing.
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    With this big screen,
    you can all rap with me. OK?
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    So what we had them do
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    was memorize this lower-left
    sound icon, please.
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    This is the control condition.
    This is what they memorized.
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    Computer: Memory, thump.
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    CL: Thump of the beat in a known repeat
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    Rhythm and rhyme, they make me complete
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    The climb is sublime when I'm on the mic
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    Spittin' rhymes that hit you
    like a lightning strike
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    Computer: Search.
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    CL: I search for the truth
    in this eternal quest
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    My passion's not fashion,
    you can see how I'm dressed
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    Psychopathic words in my head appear
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    Whisper these lyrics only I can hear
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    Computer: Art.
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    CL: The art of discovering
    and that which is hovering
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    Inside the mind of those unconfined
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    All of these words keep
    pouring out like rain
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    I need a mad scientist to check my brain
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    Computer: Stop.
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    (Applause)
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    I guarantee you
    that will never happen again.
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    (Laughter)
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    So now, what's great
    about these free-stylers,
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    they will get cued different words.
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    They don't know what's coming,
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    but they'll hear something off the cuff.
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    Go hit that right sound icon,
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    there will be cued three square words:
    like, not and head.
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    He doesn't know what's coming.
    Computer: Like.
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    Freestyler: I'm like some kind of
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    extraterrestrial, celestial scene
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    Back in the days, I used to sit
    in pyramids and meditate
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    With two microphones -- Computer: Head
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    hovering over my head
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    See if I could still listen,
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    spittin' off the sound
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    See what you grinning
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    I teach the children
    in the back of the classroom
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    About the message of apocalyptical
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    Computer: Not.
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    Not really though,
    'cause I've got to keep it simple
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    instrumental
  • 15:17 - 15:20
    Detrimental playing Super Mario
  • 15:20 - 15:23
    boxes [unclear] hip hop
  • 15:23 - 15:25
    Computer: Stop.
  • 15:25 - 15:27
    CL: It's an incredible
    thing that's taking place.
  • 15:27 - 15:29
    It's doing something
    neurologically remarkable.
  • 15:29 - 15:32
    Whether or not you like
    the music is irrelevant.
  • 15:32 - 15:34
    Creatively speaking,
    it's just a phenomenal thing.
  • 15:34 - 15:36
    This is a short video
    of how we do this in a scanner.
  • 15:37 - 15:38
    [fMRI of Hip-Hop Rap]
  • 15:38 - 15:39
    (Laughter)
  • 15:39 - 15:41
    (Video) CL: We're here with Emmanuel.
  • 15:41 - 15:43
    CL: That was recorded
    in the scanner, by the way.
  • 15:43 - 15:45
    (Video) CL: That's Emmanuel
    in the scanner.
  • 15:46 - 15:48
    He's just memorized a rhyme for us.
  • 15:49 - 15:52
    [Control Condition Memorized Verses]
  • 15:52 - 15:54
    Emmanuel: Top of the beat with no repeat
  • 15:54 - 15:57
    Rhythm and rhyme make me complete
  • 15:58 - 16:00
    Climb is sublime when I'm on the mic
  • 16:00 - 16:03
    Spittin' rhymes that'll hit you
    like a lightning strike
  • 16:03 - 16:04
    Computer: Search.
  • 16:04 - 16:07
    I search for the truth
    in this eternal quest
  • 16:07 - 16:09
    I'm passing on fashion;
    you can see how I'm dressed
  • 16:09 - 16:12
    CL: I'm going to stop that there;
    so what do we see in his brain?
  • 16:12 - 16:14
    This is four rappers' brains.
  • 16:14 - 16:16
    And we do see language areas lighting up,
  • 16:16 - 16:17
    but then, eyes closed --
  • 16:18 - 16:21
    when you are freestyling vs. memorizing,
  • 16:21 - 16:23
    you've got major visual areas lighting up.
  • 16:23 - 16:27
    You've got major cerebellar activity,
    which is involved in motor coordination.
  • 16:27 - 16:30
    You have heightened brain activity
    when you're doing a comparable task,
  • 16:30 - 16:33
    when that one task is creative
    and the other task is memorized.
  • 16:33 - 16:36
    It's very preliminary,
    but I think it's kind of cool.
  • 16:36 - 16:38
    To conclude, we've got
    a lot of questions to ask,
  • 16:38 - 16:41
    and like I said, we'll ask questions
    here, not answer them.
  • 16:41 - 16:45
    But we want to get at the root
    of what is creative genius neurologically,
  • 16:45 - 16:47
    and I think, with these methods,
    we're getting close.
  • 16:47 - 16:50
    And I think, hopefully
    in the next 10, 20 years,
  • 16:50 - 16:51
    you'll see real, meaningful studies
  • 16:51 - 16:54
    that say science has to catch up to art,
  • 16:54 - 16:57
    and maybe we're starting now to get there.
  • 16:57 - 16:59
    Thank you for your time.
  • 16:59 - 17:03
    (Applause)
Title:
Your brain on improv | Charles Limb | TEDxMidAtlantic
Description:

Musician and researcher Charles Limb wondered how the brain works during musical improvisation -- so he put jazz musicians and rappers in an fMRI to find out. What he and his team found has deep implications for our understanding of creativity of all kinds.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDxTalks
Duration:
17:14

English subtitles

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