Charles Limb, a brain scientist at Johns Hopkins is finding a neurological basis for a notion that many people believe intuitively — that music is as much a form of language as Spanish or French. He’s hoping that what he’s learning may apply to creative activity and problem-solving of all sorts — whether writing a novel, designing a better mousetrap or devising a mathematical proof.
“I’m using music as a starting point to ask, ‘How do we create something new?’ That’s a really basic question of human existence. Creative activity is linked to basic mechanisms of problem-solving, innovation, evolution and survival. If we could unlock the key to creativity, think about what that could mean for civilization.”
“I had a deep love of music, but I also had abilities in science. I finally decided that to pursue a professional career in music would be self-indulgent because I wasn’t good enough to transform the art. Then I realized that the reasons I liked music are very much the same reasons I was attracted to medicine. Both deal with the essential stuff of life. Medicine is almost the physical embodiment of music.”
“Art is magical, but it’s not magic,” Limb says.
“It’s a neurological product, and we can study this neurological product the same way we study other complex processes such as language. The goal isn’t to oversimplify or to reduce music to a series of synapses. It’s almost like peering into the window of a house and trying to understand the lives of the people who live inside. You can only get so far.”
He decided to study jazz performers, not only because that’s an art form he loves, but also because it’s a genre in which bursts of inspiration take place in public. Jazz players improvise in noisy, crowded clubs, amid the distractions of people slamming doors or the wailing siren of a passing ambulance.
“Our key finding is that the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex really changes its neurobiology when you’re improvising as compared to when you’re playing memorized music,” he says.
“The part that turns on when you’re improvising is the medial prefrontal cortex, the sort of semi-autobiographical area that’s linked to things like self-expression. The part of the brain that turns off is called the dorsolateral cortex, and it’s linked to inhibition.
“So during creative playing, you get this combination of self-expression with the absence of conscious self-monitoring. We think that’s how jazz musicians are able to improvise.”
What he found was that when the pianists were conducting a musical conversation, two areas of the brain that are involved in understanding language and in speaking — respectively “Wernicke’s area” and “Broca’s area” — lit up and showed rapid-fire bursts of activity.
“These findings indicate that when musicians are communicating with one another, they’re invoking classical language areas of the brain, even though they’re not speaking,” Limb says.
This outcome wasn’t unexpected — but another finding was. It concerns the angular gyrus, a part of the brain involved in semantics. It seems while the musicians were engaged in their musical back and forth, the amount of energy they spent deriving meaning from words dropped off sharply.
“The differences were highly significant,” Limb says, “and to me, this calls into question how language is implemented in the brain. This finding also provides a possible link — a strong link — between the neurobiology of music and language.”
Charles Limb’s story about learning is a great example of how art and science inform each other, and how multi-disciplinary thinking enables breakthrough discoveries in creativity and innovation.