As someone with a deep interest in music, I’ve often wondered about that age-old question: where does music come from? It’s become a cliché for musicians to wax philosophical about how their creative impulses come from “deep within” or that improvisation is a way of expressing their “true self”, but good luck getting anything more concrete than that. Thankfully for us curious types, Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has published a study that helps answer that question.
As assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery as well as a trained jazz saxophonist, Limb is uniquely qualified to explore this topic. He took MRIs of jazz pianists to study their brain activity as they played music- first when they recited some pre-rehearsed scales and then as they improvised on the spot. The findings actually back up all those claims that creating music is a form of pure self-expression that comes out us raw and uninhibited.1
To wit: as the musicians improvised, whether it was alone or in a group, their brain scans showed a spike in usage of the medial prefrontal cortex, an area which researchers have linked to individuality and self-expression. They also noticed a sharp drop in usage of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has been linked to self-censorship and planning. Essentially, the musicians’ thought processes became less repressed and more free-flowing, creating the musical patterns from their own sense of self rather than from preconceptions about what would sound good to others or other outside factors.
In a way, these findings are very encouraging because they reinforce our romantic notions about the connection between creativity and individuality. But it also opens up a whole new set of questions: Is it possible to train people’s brains to be creative? Could we at Posit Science come out with a program that develops the medial prefrontal cortex? Or would that be completely counter-intuitive to the whole notion of creativity and musical genius?
I’ll admit that I don’t have any of the answers to these questions. But I do think it’s interesting to consider these findings within the larger context of brain plasticity. If our brains develop according to the logic of “use it or lose it,” it follows that we become more in tune with ourselves if we use our creative impulses. So whatever it is you create, whether it’s music, poetry, or gingerbread men, you’re getting just a little bit closer to a sense of your true self, and I think that’s something we can all take comfort in.
- Limb CJ, Braun AR. Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: an FMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One. 2008 Feb 27;3(2):e1679.