Urbanite’s editor-in-chief, David Dudley, interviewed Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins who has a research fellowship to study the brain through functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Limb’s research focuses on studying the connection between music and creativity, and he used jazz musicians to discover what happens in the brain when creativity occurs. He found that when the musicians in the scanner were asked to stop playing memorized music and improvise, “The [activity in the] medial prefrontal area went up—that’s this autobiographical, self-referential, self-expressive area. And the lateral prefrontal regions went down—those are self-inhibitory, self-censoring, self-monitoring regions of the brain….The way we interpreted it—and this is with a lot of caveats—is that this might be one of the neural signatures of spontaneous creativity.”
Limb plans to continue experimenting with other musicians, by having two play back and forth and getting rappers to recite set verses and then freestyle rap, and he feels the experiment could also be applied to visual artists. Most importantly, Limb’s findings suggest that educators and neuroscientists might be able to share the information to improve education methods:
If we step back and take it as an axiom that creativity matters, all of a sudden this research goes from a neat study of jazz to something more fundamental. The explicit, tangible target, I think, has to do with education. There is something at the Johns Hopkins University called the Neuro-Education Initiative [a collaboration between JHU’s School of Education and Brain Science Institute]. Essentially what we are trying to realize, educators and scientists together, is that we share a common goal, and that’s the brain. Educators are trying to mold the brain; neuroscientists are trying to study the brain. So maybe we can pool our resources and our skills to ask: How can we understand how the brain learns best and revise our methods of education so that they are more effective? Maybe we can come up with a training paradigm that has the added insight of knowing how the brain is responding to it. You can see that there is a lot of overlapping. There is a lot of good theory behind mixing those two fields of neuroscience and education. That’s what we are trying to do. It’s in its infancy now. But in fifty years or a hundred years, this might just be how it’s done.
Congratulations to Urbanite, which is nominated for a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award for social/cultural coverage.