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See Inside May 2011

Inner Spark: Using Music to Study Creativity

Hearing specialist and sax player Charles J. Limb says that studying the brain during flights of improvisation may provide new understanding of creativity—as well as insight into the musical genius of John Coltrane



Photograph by Stephen Voss

Charles J. Limb might have been a jazz saxophonist. He grew up in a musical family and showed early signs of talent. He idolized John Coltrane and, as a student at Harvard, directed a jazz band. Although he ultimately went to medical school, he chose his specialty (otolaryngology) in part because of his musical interest. As a hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, he performs cochlear implants in patients to restore hearing and enable the deaf to appreciate music. His sensibility and passion as an artist continue to inform his research. At least half of his studies during the past 10 years have focused on regions of the brain activated during moments of deep creativity. As he puts it, he wants to understand what went on in Coltrane’s head when he performed brilliant improv on his sax night after night.

Limb and National Institutes of Health neurologist Allen R. Braun have developed a method for studying the brains of highly skilled jazz musicians while they are creating music. Subjects play on a nonmagnetic keyboard as they lie in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine that takes pictures of their brain. Then the scientists compare neural activity during improvisation with what happens when playing a memorized piece. Limb can also interact with the musician in the scanner by playing on an external keyboard—or, as musicians put it, exchanging riffs.

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