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Music on the Mind

Dr. Charles Limb uses music to study creativity in the brain

Jazz musicians often produce new versions of old songs live on stage. This amazing improvisation ability is thanks to a personal quality that we’re all familiar with: creativity. But what is creativity and where does it come from? What happens in the brain that allows someone to ad lib and create beautiful, complex music on the fly?

See also: Music and the brain.

Dr. Charles Limb and his team at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine are trying to answer just that. They’re conducting a revolutionary experiment that studies exactly what the brain is doing during creative expression. Using music as their creative channel, the team uses a functional MRI machine to document the brain’s activity while a person is improvising on a specially designed musical keyboard. It’s a complex test that measures changes in the mind’s blood flow, thus creating real-time pictures of what the brain is doing during creative action.

While understanding creativity was once a domain reserved solely for artists and philosophers, the results that Limb and his team are finding bring about a more meaningful and scientific understanding of the nature of creativity and gives researchers never-before-seen insights into how the human brain works.

“The advancement of our society, the way we problem solve, the way we innovate…it’s all contingent upon us being creative,” says Dr. Limb. “I think the more we understand the brain, the more we can figure out how to educate children (and) how to propagate creativity in society down the line. There are so many implications of understanding creativity.”

My Generation stepped into the lab of these musical medics to find the answer to that age-old question: where does creativity come from?