The Badger Reviews: Derry Girls
Arts, Film & Theatre
2 views
2 views

The Badger Reviews: Derry Girls

Sophie Coppenhall - February 22, 2018
10 Views

Your brain on improv: experiments with Jazz and Hip Hop

Photography by Jemma Deer

Dr Charles Limb, a respected hearing specialist and surgeon, has recently conducted a series of controversial and innovative experiments at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore. The studies explore what neuropsychological processes motivate creativity in Jazz musicians and rappers, particularly what underlies spontaneous improvisation. As a lifelong saxophonist, and a self-confessed classical and jazz-lover, the doctor pursued a personal interest in how the brain creates music impulsively; he wanted to understand what went on in Coltrane’s head when he performed improv.

In his first study, Jazz musicians were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, a machine that uses powerful magnets to take pictures of the brain in real time. This relatively modern technique, which is not without its disadvantages, measures deoxyhaemoglobin levels of blood in the brain, indicative of energy-use and, therefore, brain activity. To fulfil the experiment needs, Limb spent two years designing a 35-key plastic keyboard to fit safely on participants’ laps while lying down in the scanner: a revolutionary approach, allowing the neural substrates of musical creativity to be realistically and directly explored for the first time. He also acquired fMRI-safe headphones, so participants could hear the music they played over the noisy machine.

The musicians memorised a piece of Jazz music (twelve-bar blues in C-minor), written by Limb himself, and played it while inside the fMRI scanner. They then produced improvised pieces of music, based on the same scales as the memorised melody to limit extraneous factors that could influence the results. Limb discovered that the musicians activated different parts of the brain when they improvised than when they played memorised tunes. A region known as the lateral prefrontal cortex, an area at the sides of the frontal region of the brain, showed reduced activity during spontaneous music production. This area is related to planned actions and self-inhibition: for example, helping to censor what you say in particular situations. In addition, increased activity was observed in the medial prefrontal cortex in the centre of the frontal region: an area linked to self-expression and individuality. Limb speculates that as a musician tells their own musical story, they shut down any other impulses that could inhibit the flow of new music.

In a second research paper, the doctor examined the brain activity of Jazz musicians, while simultaneously jamming with them. Incredibly, the data showed that language areas of the brain were active, implying that Jazz music really is a language of its own; Limb was literally having an expressive musical conversation with his participants.

In order to further investigate musical improvisation and language, Limb decided his next step could only be to explore freestyle Hip Hop. He was fascinated by this iconoclastic street music, which is especially prevalent on the streets of Baltimore. Limb believes that this contemporary genre represents the same social function that Jazz did in its early days: as a means for young self-expression, which deviates from musical traditions. The two art forms do indeed have many parallels, such as a rhythmic emphasis, extreme improvisation and a lack of formal training.

Dr. Charles Limb

To gain access to participants, Limb slowly infiltrated the Baltimore Hip Hop scene, and recruited twelve talented artists, forming the first neuroscientific research on Hip Hop ever. Similarly to his previous experiment, the artists had to repeat a memorised rap written by Limb (an example line: “All these words keep pouring out like rain, I need a mad scientist to check my brain”) in an fMRI scanner, and then freestyle with a few words selected from the memorised piece. Amusingly, Limb said in an interview with ted.com, “I’ve been having a ton of fun … When we were making our beats and our stimuli, trying to design the study, there’s no way to do this without trying to rap yourself. It really transforms the lab!”

The exciting study has yet to be published, but preliminary results do show that, during improvisation of raps, language areas of the brain are active. However, Limb also found that motor regions and visual areas were highly active, even though participants had their eyes closed and lay still in the scanner while rapping. This is unlike what was seen in Jazz musicians. The differences in activity seem to depend on the type of music being created, or whether it is done alone or in a group. Together the results imply that heightened whole-brain activity is necessary for musical creativity. Musical improvisation could therefore be described as an idiosyncratic state of consciousness: a state that is as different to memorised instances of music as sleeping is to waking. In fact, Limb’s co-worker, Allen Braun, did find a similar pattern of disinhibition in dreaming individuals as the Jazz musicians.

The current literature is lacking in rigorous scientific research into creativity, even though it is such a quintessentially human trait. In an interview with Baltimore’s Urbanite magazine, Limb stated that his work “doesn’t strip music of its beauty or its meaning. It provides a layer of explanation about how these things could occur.”  The doctor believes that science needs to catch up with art through the development of novel ways to investigate creativity, because it is integral to humans: for example, we constantly improvise during conversations, problem solving and learning. However, he does believe that this will happen in the next 10 to 20 years. In the future Limb hopes to collaborate with the John Hopkins School of Education to improve teaching, and examine other types of spontaneous improvisation, including: visual art, poetry, differences in amateur as compared to expert musicians, and the discrepancy between children and adults. He also wants to work with famous rappers, such as Eminem.

Get the best viral stories straight into your inbox!

Don't worry, we don't spam
The Badger Reviews: Derry Girls
Arts, Film & Theatre
2 views
2 views

The Badger Reviews: Derry Girls

Sophie Coppenhall - February 22, 2018
12 views

Krater’s Valentine’s Day Special review

Daniel Green - February 21, 2018
Exploring Mumbai Street Food
Lifestyle
15 views
15 views

Exploring Mumbai Street Food

Louisa Streeting - February 21, 2018

Leave a Reply

Join the Badger Team

Apply today!

Latest Posts

The Badger Reviews: Derry Girls
Arts, Film & Theatre
2 views
Arts, Film & Theatre
2 views

The Badger Reviews: Derry Girls

Sophie Coppenhall - February 22, 2018

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MwnpSEzprQ[/embedyt] This week, Sophie our film editor, reviews season one of Derry Girls. Have you seen it? What did you think? Leave us a comment on…

Arts, Film & Theatre
12 views

Krater’s Valentine’s Day Special review

Daniel Green - February 21, 2018

Love was in the air at a Valentine’s special of Krater Comedy Club last Wednesday and, despite the pouring rain outside, Komedia was packed full of people…

‘Paws for Pensions’ among strike event schedule
Campus News, News
10 views
Campus News, News
10 views

‘Paws for Pensions’ among strike event schedule

William Singh - February 21, 2018

University of Sussex staff are hosting a full slate of events on strike days, including talks, teach-ins, and even a day to bring along your puppers. Members…

Exploring Mumbai Street Food
Lifestyle
15 views
Lifestyle
15 views

Exploring Mumbai Street Food

Louisa Streeting - February 21, 2018

Mumbai is a place that assaults the senses; an array of smells you’ve never smelt before, vibrant colours, and constant noises from the surge of tourists and…

Comment, Opinion
20 views

Comment Cast: Misogyny In Hollywood

Will Cronk - February 21, 2018

In the is episode, Will and Sophie discuss misogyny in film and tv. For more, pick up a badger around campus or read it online. Tune in…

Students need to support the UCU strike
Comment, Opinion
33 views
Comment, Opinion
33 views

Students need to support the UCU strike

Johnbosco Nwogbo - February 20, 2018

The question of whether or not the current UCU strike is justified is an easily settled one, if one took a broad view. According to the Joseph…

Women’s suffrage 100 years on: what’s changed?
Features, Top Stories
27 views
Features, Top Stories
27 views

Women’s suffrage 100 years on: what’s changed?

Roisin McCormack - February 20, 2018

As it reaches a century since the defining moments of women’s suffrage, Roisin McCormack looks into how much things have really changed. Is a celebration of the…

Retrospective: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Punch Drunk Love’ (2002)
Arts, Film & Theatre
21 views
Arts, Film & Theatre
21 views

Retrospective: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Punch Drunk Love’ (2002)

Gabriel Ross - February 20, 2018

During a 2002 interview with Charlie Rose, when asked whether he is going to take some time off, Adam Sandler promptly replies, “I don’t really wanna have…

News
40 views

Live: Students’ Union decides on UCU strike backing

William Singh - February 19, 2018

U.S.S.U-Turn: 54 students decide stance for 17,000
Campus News, News
51 views
Campus News, News
51 views

U.S.S.U-Turn: 54 students decide stance for 17,000

Jordan Wright - February 19, 2018

On Monday 19th February, the Students’ Union Council will vote on whether or not to support the national Univerity  and College Union (UCU) strike action that is…

The Wombats: ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life’ review
Arts, Music
28 views
Arts, Music
28 views

The Wombats: ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life’ review

Matthew Nicholls - February 19, 2018

Three years after their last release, The Wombats are back with their long awaited fourth album ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life’. Since 'Glitterbug' reached number 5…

Artist Focus: Ella Barkhouse
Artist Focus, Arts
28 views
Artist Focus, Arts
28 views

Artist Focus: Ella Barkhouse

Louisa Hunt - February 19, 2018

Ella Barkhouse is a second-year Brighton student, studying Fine Art: Critical Practice course. Her work ranges across all sorts of media, from some more traditional writing, drawing…

The ultimate LGBTQ+ books guide this February
Books
65 views
Books
65 views

The ultimate LGBTQ+ books guide this February

Shiri Reuben - February 19, 2018

  Throughout the month of February, LGBT History Month aims to promote tolerance and spread awareness of the historical and present-day prejudices faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual…

Planned new Life Sciences building ‘axed’
Campus News, News
73 views
Campus News, News
73 views

Planned new Life Sciences building ‘axed’

Anonymous - February 16, 2018

The University of Sussex’s longstanding plans to construct a new Life Sciences building in the east end of the Science Car Park have been axed, The Badger…

The Badger chats to Sussex Show Choir
Arts, Film & Theatre
42 views
Arts, Film & Theatre
42 views

The Badger chats to Sussex Show Choir

Georgia Grace - February 16, 2018

Theatre Editor Georgia Grace spoke with one of the University’s major performing arts societies Show Choir about what they’ve been up to over the previous months, and…

Russian State Ballet of Siberia comes to the Theatre Royal Brighton
Arts, Film & Theatre
50 views
Arts, Film & Theatre
50 views

Russian State Ballet of Siberia comes to the Theatre Royal Brighton

Georgia Grace - February 16, 2018

Next week, Theatre Royal Brighton hosts the Russian State Ballet of Siberia for three phenomenal performances across three consecutive nights: Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and Swan Lake.…

I, Tonya Review
Arts, Film & Theatre
50 views
Arts, Film & Theatre
50 views

I, Tonya Review

Michael Humphreys - February 16, 2018

Having made her name in The Wolf of Wall Street as well as starring in disasters such as Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s career has been less than…

The Badger Reviews: Star Trek Discovery
Arts, Film & Theatre
47 views
Arts, Film & Theatre
47 views

The Badger Reviews: Star Trek Discovery

Sophie Coppenhall - February 16, 2018

  [embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8KGLdIMtHQ[/embed] This week, Sophie our film editor, reviews season one of Star Trek Discovery. Have you seen it? What did you think? Leave us a comment…

Campus News, News
77 views

News like Badger: Union U-turn over referendum to support strike action, new east slope and more

William Singh - February 16, 2018

In this news round up of the week, Will and Jordan catch you up on everything going on around campus. Thanks for listening, and tune in next…

Comment, Podcast
41 views

Comment Cast: The US is leaving the Paris Climate Agreement- but does it really matter?

Will Cronk - February 16, 2018

In this episode Will and Julian debate whether or not the US leaving the Paris Climate Agreement really matters. Thanks for listening and tune in for more…