Hopkins scientist finds link between neurobiology of music, language

Researcher Charles Limb tracked the areas of the brain that light up and shut off when jazz pianists are improvising

  • Brain scientist Dr. Charles Limb, in his lab at Johns Hopkins, where he studies the brain and how music interacts with the brain. Mike Pope, a jazz musician, was one of Limb's research subjects.
Brain scientist Dr. Charles Limb, in his lab at Johns Hopkins,… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun…)
March 04, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

A Johns Hopkins brain scientist is finding a neurological basis for a notion that many people believe intuitively — that music is as much a form of language as Spanish or French.

Charles Limb is one of just a handful of researchers worldwide studying what's going on in the brains of jazz musicians who compose on the fly.

Some findings related to traditional language areas of the brain are what Limb expected to discover, though one key and recent result has surprised even him. But he's hoping that what he's learning may apply to creative activity and problem-solving of all sorts — whether writing a novel, designing a better mousetrap or devising a mathematical proof.

Twice in recent weeks, Limb has talked publicly about his newest findings: once to his fellow scientists attending a conference of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology in downtown Baltimore, and the second time to a group of artists, cultural leaders and lawmakers at the Maryland Arts Day celebration in Annapolis.

"The brain on arts is different than the everyday brain," Limb says.

"I'm using music as a starting point to ask, 'How do we create something new?' That's a really basic question of human existence. Creative activity is linked to basic mechanisms of problem-solving, innovation, evolution and survival. If we could unlock the key to creativity, think about what that could mean for civilization."

Limb has been a serious musician all his life. His main instrument is the saxophone, though he also plays piano and bass. When he attended college at Harvard University he directed a jazz band. He's a member of the Peabody Conservatory faculty, where he works with students interested in music cognition.

But when Limb was in college and trying to commit to a career, he arrived at a crossroads.

"I couldn't figure out what to do," he says.

"I had a deep love of music, but I also had abilities in science. I finally decided that to pursue a professional career in music would be self-indulgent because I wasn't good enough to transform the art. Then I realized that the reasons I liked music are very much the same reasons I was attracted to medicine. Both deal with the essential stuff of life. Medicine is almost the physical embodiment of music."

After graduating from medical school at Yale University, Limb completed his residency at Hopkins, and then two postdoctoral research fellowships at Hopkins and at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

It was in 2003, while he was at NIH, that Limb began trying to capture the mysterious, ephemeral moment when an artist or inventor dreams up something that has never before existed.

"Art is magical, but it's not magic," Limb says.

"It's a neurological product, and we can study this neurological product the same way we study other complex processes such as language. The goal isn't to oversimplify or to reduce music to a series of synapses. It's almost like peering into the window of a house and trying to understand the lives of the people who live inside. You can only get so far."

He decided to study jazz performers, not only because that's an art form he loves, but also because it's a genre in which bursts of inspiration take place in public. Jazz players improvise in noisy, crowded clubs, amid the distractions of people slamming doors or the wailing siren of a passing ambulance.

Given that environment, Limb's 30 subjects, all jazz pianists, haven't so much as raised an eyebrow at being asked to conjure up a new composition under decidedly unusual circumstances. So what if they're plunking away on a miniature digital keyboard that they can't look at directly, while lying on their backs and being simultaneously wheeled into a claustrophobia-inducing metal tunnel?

"It was unorthodox," says one of Limb's subjects, the Baltimore-based pianist Mike Pope. "But we've all had to deal with situations in which it was equally difficult to make music. It's just as hard to play in a club when people are watching a football game and the blenders are running."

Limb's main tool is an fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging unit, that uses electrodes strapped to the pianists' heads to measure the blood flow in different parts of their brains.

The pianists' legs are propped over a triangular-shaped bolster. The 35-key, digital lap keyboard that it took Limb two years to design rests on their thighs. Two attached mirrors allow the pianist to see the keyboard right side up. When a musician depresses a key, it sounds a corresponding note on a computer outside the scanner.

Before coming into the lab, the pianists had learned a12-bar blues song that Limb had written. A recorded quartet performing in the background played the chord changes.

After playing the piece as written, the pianists were asked to improvise on the chord changes.

When Limb later analyzed their brain scans, he found something interesting:

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