In his TEDTalk (watch now), Charles Limb reviews his groundbreaking work studying creativity and the brain — by putting musicians inside an fMRI and watching as they improvise. For the past decade, he’s been working with jazz piano players, revealing astonishing new data about the way the brain creates art. And his research has recently branched into a new genre: hip-hop. He spoke to the TED Blog about his new study, and about his day job …
How did you decide to study hip-hop?
It kind of happened very naturally. I’m not somebody who’s listened to a ton of hip-hop; I was much more of a jazz guy, and I listened to a lot of classical music. But I work in Baltimore, grew up around New York and went to medical school in New Haven, and I always did feel that hip-hop is very much a street music, from the people, a grassroots kind of music exactly the same as jazz once was, a kind of iconoclastic music. In some ways, rap has replaced or assumed a lot of the same sociological functions to urban youth. There are a lot of interesting musical parallels between hip-hop and jazz: the rhythmic emphasis, the improvisation, the fact that the musicians are often formally untrained yet they’re incredible. The more I started thinking about jazz and the brain, rap seemed like a natural transition.
There’s never been a scientific study of hip-hop ever. It’s not the kind of topic that I can glean much from other studies or the existing scientific literature.
And I have to tell you, I’ve been having a ton of fun with this study, just experientially. When we were making our beats and our stimuli, trying to design the study, there’s no way to do this study without trying to rap yourself. It really transforms the lab!
Do you see a significant difference in brains between wordless music like jazz and music with words?
Well, I have to be careful, because we’re not done with the study yet. We’re still trying to recruit more rappers …
How are you recruiting rappers for the new study?
I have been slowly infiltrating the Baltimore hip-hop scene. There’s a well-known beatboxer named Shodekeh — he’s performed with the Baltimore Symphony — he and I got to know each other at a symposium at the Visionary Art Museum and we got to talking. I actually told him, “I’m thinking of doing a laryngeal study of beatboxing.” He connected me to one rapper, and just through word-of-mouth, I’ve been getting slowly connected with the scene. I’ve talked now with about 12 professional freestyle rappers, and we’ve studied about half of them.
Given the image Johns Hopkins has as this conservative medical establishment, in an inner city but not of it — the idea that there’s a lab that wants to study hip-hop, I think there’s something appealing to the community.
And I have to tell you how appreciative the musicians are. They really have a vested interest in seeing this research succeed. Because they have thought all along that what they’re doing is important. And they themselves have wondered all along: “Wow, how am I doing this?” They enter an altered state. And what they’re generating off the cuff is just remarkable. They are fascinated by understanding how they do what they do.
Actually, A Class said an interesting thing to me. We were finishing a study, and I asked him in a post-study interview, “Is there any last thing you want to say?” And he turned real serious and he said, “Hip-hop has a bad reputation. Just give us a chance. We’re really good people and we have a lot to say.”
As for other subjects, I would love it if we could get some really well-known freestyle rappers. If Eminem wants to be part of this study, I’d fly him over!
Why do you think your studies have captivated people they way they have?
Previously, there wasn’t a methodology for a study like this. Functional brain imaging is relatively new. When I started my first jazz study, the one in 2003, there was not a single other study I could compare with at the time, there was nothing. It’s one of those topics that will continue to develop.
Although I didn’t get the chance to discuss this during the TEDx talk, functional MRI is only one tool that we can use to study the brain, and like any other method, it has its advantages and disadvantages. By no means do I think that fMRI will reveal everything there is to know about how creativity takes place in the brain, but it is on the other hand a great place to start.
When I did my first jazz study, I really just did it for myself. I just wanted to know. I wasn’t trying to be a scientific innovator, I wasn’t really trying to make a point. It didn’t really matter to me what people thought of the results. So when it was published and the study received a startling amount of attention — I realized that more people wanted to know what I wanted to know. The topic of this research cuts across a wide range of fields, which is unusual for science.
It’s also important to emphasize that the lab and improvisation are not natural bedfellows, and that it’s hard to study music in a way that musicians find comfortable and realistic. In the end, I’m trying to perform modest scientific experiments on a big topic, rather than coax out artistic masterpieces from the researchers, although I’d love to study that one day as well! As a lifelong musician, I’m fully aware of all of the ideas, training, time, effort, and concentration that goes into a genuine creative act, and I try to be very careful and respectful of the arts in the science that I do. I hope this is something that artists will realize, because I think it’s important and difficult. This work is extremely easy to criticize, yet I think that some of the critics may miss this very basic premise on which I’m basing all of my work.
One of the biggest problems is that this type of research is difficult to fund. It’s not the kind of area that a lot of scientists are exploring. By nature, scientists are often less forward-thinking than artists — it’s a conservative field. And in this current funding climate, it’s not going to be easy to get funding to study creativity. It’s not disease-based. And obviously every time you’re funding something, you’re not funding something else. So there’s not a lot of support for this kind of research.
The idea that there is a “crisis in creativity” is in vogue right now, in conversations throughout the country about the failures of education in America. I suspect that what will happen is, a small group of researchers will take on these challenges from a wide range of disciplines. Many of the scientists that study these topics are really part-artist, internally. On one level, I personally care more about music than about science. I view it from the same lens as an artist would. And I think this is why my research may resonate with people. They see some artistic truth in it.
How has this project deepened your own enjoyment of music — or do you go home at night going, I am never going to listen to piano jazz ever again?
No, no, never. It’s funny you should ask, actually — we write our own music in the lab when we do a jazz study, so that the piece is nothing the subjects have heard before, and there are no previous associations. When we’re writing the piece to be memorized, I know that we (in the lab) are going to hear the piece literally hundreds of times. So I tell the lab members that whatever you write, make sure you can listen to it ad nauseam, over and over. And we actually have written some things that are catchy! In fact, I think that one of the jazz musicians played a research melody at one of his gigs. It kind of stuck in his head.
There are people who think art is going to be threatened by this type of analysis, but — no way. There’s so much complexity in music. And when I listen to music, I still listen like a musician. I can get cerebral, take a more analytical approach to music, but the emotional impact or significance of music — my enjoyment of it has in no way changed. In fact, it has grown. Like every subject, you fall in love with it the more deeply you study it.
But the first time I told my wife, I’m going to study jazz using functional brain imaging, she said, “You’re going to do what?” Of all the impractical things that you could do for your career. I trained my whole life to become a surgeon …
Your surgery career has some interesting, kind of poetic crossover with this work.
I’m an auditory surgeon, and I specialize in a surgery called cochlear implantation. I also treat all disorders of the ear, from chronic infections to cancer of the temporal bone. Cochlear implantation is a way to help deaf people hear again, and I study how people who are deaf and receive cochlear implants hear music. The summary is that they hear it really poorly. Pitch perception is horrible, timbre perception is horrible. We’re trying to understand why music perception is so poor and figure out how to make it better.
I’ve been really lucky. I’m studying something I’m fully obsessed with on a personal level. When I go to the lab, I literally cannot imagine anything I’d rather study than music. It’s exactly where I want to be. I’m thinking about the things I would think about on vacation. I know I am extremely lucky. And I don’t take it for granted.
UPDATE: We caught up with Charles Limb at TEDMED 2011 and asked him for an update on all his projects … and his top 5 songs of all time >>