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← Your brain on improv

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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Showing Revision 5 created 11/23/2016 by Krystian Aparta.

  1. So I am a surgeon who studies creativity,
  2. and I have never had a patient tell me,
  3. "I really want you
    to be creative during surgery,"
  4. and so I guess
    there's a little bit of irony to it.
  5. I will say though that,
    after having done surgery a lot,
  6. it's similar to playing
    a musical instrument.
  7. And for me, this deep
    and enduring fascination with sound
  8. is what led me to both be a surgeon
  9. and to study the science
    of sound, particularly music.
  10. I'm going to talk
    over the next few minutes
  11. about my career
  12. in terms of how I'm able to study music
  13. and try to grapple
    with all these questions
  14. of how the brain is able to be creative.
  15. I've done most of this work
    at Johns Hopkins University,
  16. and at the National Institute
    of Health where I was previously.
  17. I'll go over some science experiments
    and cover three musical experiments.
  18. I will start off by playing
    a video for you.

  19. This video is of Keith Jarrett,
    who's a well-known jazz improviser
  20. and probably the most
    well-known, iconic example
  21. of someone who takes improvisation
    to a higher level.
  22. And he'll improvise entire concerts
    off the top of his head,
  23. and he'll never play it
    exactly the same way again,
  24. so as a form of intense creativity,
  25. I think this is a great example.
  26. And so why don't we go
    and click the video.
  27. (Music)

  28. (Music ends)

  29. It's really a remarkable
    thing that happens there.

  30. I've always as a listener, as a fan,
  31. I listen to that, and I'm astounded.
  32. I think -- how can this possibly be?
  33. How can the brain generate
    that much information,
  34. that much music, spontaneously?
  35. And so I set out
    with this concept, scientifically,
  36. that artistic creativity,
    it's magical, but it's not magic,
  37. meaning that it's a product of the brain.
  38. There's not too many brain-dead
    people creating art.
  39. With this notion that artistic creativity
    is in fact a neurologic product,
  40. I took this thesis that we could study it
  41. just like we study any other
    complex neurologic process,
  42. and there are subquestions
    that I put there.
  43. Is it possible to study
    creativity scientifically?
  44. And I think that's a good question.
  45. And I'll tell you that most
    scientific studies of music,
  46. they're very dense,
  47. and when you go through them,
  48. it's very hard to recognize
    the music in it.
  49. In fact, they seem to be
    unmusical entirely
  50. and to miss the point of the music.
  51. This brings the second question:

  52. Why should scientists study creativity?
  53. Maybe we're not the right people to do it.
  54. (Laughter)

  55. Well it may be, but I will say that,
    from a scientific perspective,

  56. we talked a lot about innovation today,
  57. the science of innovation,
  58. how much we understand
    about how the brain is able to innovate
  59. is in its infancy,
  60. and truly, we know very little
    about how we are able to be creative.
  61. I think that we're going to see,
  62. over the next 10, 20, 30 years,
  63. a real science of creativity
    that's burgeoning
  64. and is going to flourish,
  65. Because we now have new methods
    that can enable us
  66. to take this process
    like complex jazz improvisation,
  67. and study it rigorously.
  68. So it gets down to the brain.
  69. All of us have this remarkable brain,
  70. which is poorly understood,
    to say the least.
  71. I think that neuroscientists
    have more questions than answers,
  72. and I'm not going
    to give you answers today,
  73. just ask a lot of questions.
  74. And that's what I do in my lab.

  75. I ask questions about what is the brain
    doing to enable us to do this.
  76. This is the main method that I use.
    This is functional MRI.
  77. If you've been in an MRI scanner,
    it's very much the same,
  78. but this one is outfitted in a special way
    to not just take pictures of your brain,
  79. but to also take pictures
    of active areas of the brain.
  80. The way that's done is by the following:
  81. There's something called BOLD imaging,
  82. which is Blood Oxygen
    Level Dependent imaging.
  83. When you're in an fMRI scanner,
    you're in a big magnet
  84. that's aligning your molecules
    in certain areas.
  85. When an area of the brain is active,
    meaning a neural area is active,
  86. it gets blood flow shunted to that area.
  87. That blood flow causes an increase
    in local blood to that area
  88. with a deoxyhemoglobin
    change in concentration.
  89. Deoxyhemoglobin can be detected by MRI,
  90. whereas oxyhemoglobin can't.
  91. So through this method of inference --
  92. and we're measuring blood flow,
    not neural activity --
  93. we say that an area of the brain
    that's getting more blood
  94. was active during a particular task,
    and that's the crux of how fMRI works.
  95. And it's been used since the '90s
    to study really complex processes.
  96. I'm going to review a study that I did,
    which was jazz in an fMRI scanner.

  97. It was done with a colleague,
    Alan Braun, at the NIH.
  98. This is a short video
    of how we did this project.
  99. (Video) Charles Limb: This is a plastic
    MIDI piano keyboard

  100. that we use for the jazz experiments.
  101. And it's a 35-key keyboard
  102. designed to fit both inside the scanner,
  103. be magnetically safe,
  104. have minimal interference
    that would contribute to any artifact,
  105. and have this cushion
    so that it can rest on the players' legs
  106. while they're lying down in the scanner,
    playing on their back.
  107. It works like this --
    this doesn't actually produce any sound.
  108. It sends out what's called
    a MIDI signal --
  109. or a Musical Instrument
    Digital Interface --
  110. through these wires into the box
    and then the computer,
  111. which then trigger
    high-quality piano samples like this.
  112. (Music)

  113. (Music)

  114. (Music ends)

  115. OK, so it works.

  116. And so through this piano keyboard,
  117. we have the means to take
    a musical process and study it.
  118. So what do you do now that you have
    this cool piano keyboard?
  119. You can't just say,
    "It's great we have a keyboard."
  120. We have to come up
    with a scientific experiment.
  121. The experiment
    really rests on the following:
  122. What happens in the brain during something
    that's memorized and over-learned,
  123. and what happens in the brain
    during something
  124. that is spontaneously
    generated, or improvised,
  125. in a way that's matched motorically
  126. and in terms of lower-level
    sensory motor features?
  127. I have here what we call the paradigms.

  128. There's a scale paradigm, which is playing
    a scale up and down, memorized,
  129. then there's improvising on a scale,
  130. quarter notes, metronome, right hand --
  131. scientifically very safe,
  132. but musically really boring.
  133. Then there's the bottom one,
    which is called the jazz paradigm.
  134. So we brought professional
    jazz players to the NIH,
  135. and we had them memorize
    this piece of music on the lower-left,
  136. which is what you heard me playing --
  137. and we had them improvise
    to the same chord changes.
  138. And if you can hit
    that lower-right sound icon,
  139. that's an example
    of what was recorded in the scanner.
  140. (Music)

  141. (Music ends)

  142. In the end, it's not the most
    natural environment,

  143. but they're able to play real music.
  144. And I've listened to that solo 200 times,
  145. and I still like it.
  146. And the musicians
    were comfortable in the end.
  147. We first measured the number of notes.
  148. Were they playing more notes
    when they were improvising?
  149. That was not what was going on.
  150. And then we looked at the brain activity.
  151. I will try to condense this for you.
  152. These are contrast maps that are showing
    subtractions between what changes
  153. when you're improvising
    vs. when you're doing something memorized.
  154. In red is an area that's active
    in the prefrontal cortex,
  155. the frontal lobe of the brain,
  156. and in blue is this area
    that was deactivated.
  157. So we had this focal area
    called the medial prefrontal cortex
  158. that went way up in activity.
  159. We had this broad patch of area
    called the lateral prefrontal cortex
  160. that went way down in activity,
  161. I'll summarize that for you.
  162. These are multifunctional
    areas of the brain,

  163. these are not the jazz areas of the brain.
  164. They do a whole host of things
  165. that have to do with self-reflection,
  166. introspection, working memory etc.
  167. Really, consciousness is seated
    in the frontal lobe.
  168. But we have this combination
  169. of an area that's thought to be involved
    in self-monitoring, turning off,
  170. and this area that's thought
    to be autobiographical,
  171. or self-expressive, turning on.
  172. We think, at least in this preliminary --
  173. it's one study; it's probably wrong,
    but it's one study --
  174. (Laughter)

  175. we think that at least
    a reasonable hypothesis

  176. is that, to be creative,
  177. you should have this weird dissociation
    in your frontal lobe.
  178. One area turns on,
    and a big area shuts off,
  179. so that you're not inhibited,
    you're willing to make mistakes,
  180. so that you're not constantly
    shutting down
  181. all of these new generative impulses.
  182. Now a lot of people know that music
    is not always a solo activity --
  183. sometimes it's done communicatively.
  184. The next question was:

  185. What happens when musicians
    are trading back and forth,
  186. something called "trading fours,"
  187. which is something they do
    normally in a jazz experiment.
  188. So this is a 12-bar blues,
  189. and I've broken it
    down into four-bar groups,
  190. so you would know how you would trade.
  191. We brought a musician
    into the scanner, same way,
  192. had them memorize this melody
  193. then had another musician
    out in the control room
  194. trading back and forth interactively.
  195. So this is a musician, Mike Pope,

  196. one of the world's best bassists
    and a fantastic piano player.
  197. (Music)

  198. He's now playing the piece
    that we just saw

  199. a little better than I wrote it.
  200. (Video) CL: Mike, come on in.

  201. Mike Pope: May the force be with you.

  202. Nurse: Nothing in your pockets, Mike?

  203. MP: No. Nothing's in my pockets.

  204. CL: You have to have the right
    attitude to agree to do it.

  205. (Laughter)

  206. It's kind of fun, actually.

  207. (Music)

  208. Now we're playing back and forth.

  209. He's in there.
    You can see his legs up there.
  210. (Music)

  211. And then I'm in the control room here,
    playing back and forth.

  212. (Music)

  213. (Music ends)

  214. (Video) Mike Pope:
    This is a pretty good representation

  215. of what it's like.
  216. And it's good that it's not too quick.
  217. The fact that we do it over and over again
  218. lets you acclimate to your surroundings.
  219. So the hardest thing for me
    was the kinesthetic thing,
  220. looking at my hands through two mirrors,
  221. laying on my back,
  222. and not able to move at all
    except for my hand.
  223. That was challenging.
  224. But again --
  225. there were moments, for sure --
  226. (Laughter)

  227. there were moments of real, honest-to-God
    musical interplay, for sure.

  228. CL: At this point,
    I'll take a few moments.

  229. So what you're seeing here --
  230. and I'm doing a cardinal sin in science,
  231. which is to show you preliminary data.
  232. This is one subject's data.
  233. This is, in fact, Mike Pope's data.
  234. So what am I showing you here?
  235. When he was trading fours with me,
    improvising vs. memorized,
  236. his language areas lit up,
    his Broca's area,
  237. in the inferior frontal gyrus on the left.
  238. He had it also homologous on the right.
  239. This is an area thought to be
    involved in expressive communication.
  240. This whole notion
    that music is a language --
  241. maybe there's a neurologic
    basis to it after all,
  242. and we can see it when two musicians
    are having a musical conversation.
  243. So we've done this on eight subjects now,
  244. and we're getting all the data together,
  245. hopefully we'll have something
    to say about it meaningfully.
  246. Now when I think about improvisation
    and the language, what's next?

  247. Rap, of course, rap -- freestyle.
  248. I've always been fascinated by freestyle.
  249. And let's play this video.
  250. (Video) Mos Def: Brown skin I be,
    standing five-ten I be

  251. Rockin' it when I be, in your vicinity
  252. Whole-style synergy, recognize symmetry
  253. Go and try to injure me,
    broke 'em down chemically
  254. Ain't the number 10 MC,
    talk about how been I be
  255. Styled it like Kennedy,
    late like a 10 to three
  256. When I say when I be,
    girls say bend that key cut
  257. CL: So there's a lot of analogy

  258. between what takes place
    in freestyle rap and jazz.
  259. There are a lot of correlates
    between the two forms of music,
  260. I think, in different time periods,
    in lot of ways,
  261. rap serves the same social function
    that jazz used to serve.
  262. So how do you study rap scientifically?
  263. And my colleagues think I'm crazy,
    but I think it's very viable.
  264. This is what you do:
  265. You have a freestyle artist come
    and memorize a rap
  266. that you write for them,
  267. that they've never heard before,
    and then you have them freestyle.
  268. So I told my lab members
    that I would rap for TED,
  269. and they said, "No, you won't."
  270. And then I thought --
  271. (Laughter)

  272. (Applause)

  273. But here's the thing.

  274. With this big screen,
    you can all rap with me. OK?
  275. So what we had them do
  276. was memorize this lower-left
    sound icon, please.
  277. This is the control condition.
    This is what they memorized.
  278. Computer: Memory, thump.

  279. CL: Thump of the beat in a known repeat

  280. Rhythm and rhyme, they make me complete
  281. The climb is sublime when I'm on the mic
  282. Spittin' rhymes that hit you
    like a lightning strike
  283. Computer: Search.

  284. CL: I search for the truth
    in this eternal quest

  285. My passion's not fashion,
    you can see how I'm dressed
  286. Psychopathic words in my head appear
  287. Whisper these lyrics only I can hear
  288. Computer: Art.

  289. CL: The art of discovering
    and that which is hovering

  290. Inside the mind of those unconfined
  291. All of these words keep
    pouring out like rain
  292. I need a mad scientist to check my brain
  293. Computer: Stop.

  294. (Applause)

  295. I guarantee you
    that will never happen again.

  296. (Laughter)

  297. So now, what's great
    about these free-stylers,

  298. they will get cued different words.
  299. They don't know what's coming,
  300. but they'll hear something off the cuff.
  301. Go hit that right sound icon,
  302. there will be cued three square words:
    like, not and head.
  303. He doesn't know what's coming.
    Computer: Like.
  304. Freestyler: I'm like some kind of

  305. extraterrestrial, celestial scene
  306. Back in the days, I used to sit
    in pyramids and meditate
  307. With two microphones -- Computer: Head

  308. hovering over my head
  309. See if I could still listen,
  310. spittin' off the sound
  311. See what you grinning
  312. I teach the children
    in the back of the classroom
  313. About the message of apocalyptical
  314. Computer: Not.

  315. Not really though,
    'cause I've got to keep it simple
  316. instrumental
  317. Detrimental playing Super Mario
  318. boxes [unclear] hip hop
  319. Computer: Stop.

  320. CL: It's an incredible
    thing that's taking place.

  321. It's doing something
    neurologically remarkable.
  322. Whether or not you like
    the music is irrelevant.
  323. Creatively speaking,
    it's just a phenomenal thing.
  324. This is a short video
    of how we do this in a scanner.
  325. [fMRI of Hip-Hop Rap]

  326. (Laughter)

  327. (Video) CL: We're here with Emmanuel.

  328. CL: That was recorded
    in the scanner, by the way.

  329. (Video) CL: That's Emmanuel
    in the scanner.

  330. He's just memorized a rhyme for us.
  331. [Control Condition Memorized Verses]

  332. Emmanuel: Top of the beat with no repeat

  333. Rhythm and rhyme make me complete
  334. Climb is sublime when I'm on the mic
  335. Spittin' rhymes that'll hit you
    like a lightning strike
  336. Computer: Search.

  337. I search for the truth
    in this eternal quest
  338. I'm passing on fashion;
    you can see how I'm dressed
  339. CL: I'm going to stop that there;
    so what do we see in his brain?

  340. This is four rappers' brains.
  341. And we do see language areas lighting up,
  342. but then, eyes closed --
  343. when you are freestyling vs. memorizing,
  344. you've got major visual areas lighting up.
  345. You've got major cerebellar activity,
    which is involved in motor coordination.
  346. You have heightened brain activity
    when you're doing a comparable task,
  347. when that one task is creative
    and the other task is memorized.
  348. It's very preliminary,
    but I think it's kind of cool.
  349. To conclude, we've got
    a lot of questions to ask,

  350. and like I said, we'll ask questions
    here, not answer them.
  351. But we want to get at the root
    of what is creative genius neurologically,
  352. and I think, with these methods,
    we're getting close.
  353. And I think, hopefully
    in the next 10, 20 years,
  354. you'll see real, meaningful studies
  355. that say science has to catch up to art,
  356. and maybe we're starting now to get there.
  357. Thank you for your time, I appreciate it.

  358. (Applause)