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This is your brain on hip-hop: Dr. Charles J. Limb discusses the body’s reactions to music at Coolidge Corner Theatre

Posted by Alex Pearlman  April 17, 2012 05:54 PM

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dr charles j limb.jpgBy Allison Thibault

“If we want to understand creativity, then we have to understand artists,” Dr. Charles J. Limb, a faculty member of Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory of Music, told a crowded house at Coolidge Corner Theatre last night.

In conjunction with a special screening of Eminem’s 8 Mile, part of the theater’s “Science on Screen” series, Dr. Limb discussed his attempts to do just that. He’s spent the past 10 years conducting brain scans of jazz musicians and rappers to learn how they’re able to produce off-the-cuff music and lyrics when they improvise and freestyle rap.

“I’m a surgeon who’s obsessed with sound, by the whole process by which our brains work to hear and create it,” said Dr. Limb, who’s also an associate professor of otolaryngology.

When Dr. Limb began his research, little to no other scientific literature existed on his topic of interest, he said. He set out to create experiments and analyses that would begin to uncover what allows, as he calls it, “the state of flow” in musicians’ brains when they spontaneously create sound.

Although his studies originally focused on ear functions, Dr. Limb expanded his research because hearing and interpreting sounds -- especially music, a complex and amazing sound that simply comes from “vibrations in the air that enter our eardrums,” he said -- requires much more than just one body part.

As part of his studies, Dr. Limb puts musicians inside a function MRI (fMRI) machine and records data as they improvise jazz music or freestyle rap. Through years of improving upon and expanding these experimental scans, Dr. Limb has discovered some interesting insights into the biology of creativity.

“Artistic creativity is a function of the brain,” which interprets sound through a delicate but intricate system in the eardrum, Dr. Limb said. Although he’s an experienced and knowledgeable doctor, Limb said that the way the human ear works to detect sound and the way the brain can interpret it emotionally still amazes him.

As artists improvise or freestyle, certain parts of their brains -- like the medial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that’s in charge of autobiographical ideas and memories -- are highly active, while activity in other areas -- such as the lateral prefrontal lobe, the section of the brain that fosters our inhibitions -- significantly decreases, Dr. Limb said.

During a freestyle rap, the scans also detect major activity in the brain’s language centers; Dr. Limb said that’s because artists are aiming for a unique vocabulary to evoke meaning in their rhymes, rather than focusing on form or syntax.

Dr. Limb said that he believes that his research has only just begun to chip away at the tip of the iceberg that is the science behind human creativity. Displaying a picture of a prehistoric flute, carved by early humans from an animal’s femur bone, he said that the artifact is proof that improvisational music has existed in all cultures for thousands of years.

It’s no coincidence that all humans enjoy some sort of music, Dr. Limb said. “We have a biologically hardwired human drive for music."

Dr. Limb said that he hopes that by sharing his research, even those who don’t necessarily enjoy rap music can at least have a greater appreciation for how it’s created and the artists’ innate talents.

Photo by csuspect (Flickr)

About Allison -- I am a journalism and creative writing student at Suffolk University. Politics, poetry, photography, and fine art are my passions. You can find me scrolling through the top stories on CNN, dreaming of exploring the cities featured in the New York Times travel section, inventing elaborate stories about strangers who sit across from me on the T, and wandering aimlessly through the streets with my camera. Twitter: @allytgurl

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