An Interview with
Charles Limb, M.D.
|Francis A. Sooy Professor of Otolaryngology|
Director, Douglas Grant Cochlear Implant Center
University of California, San Francisco
Dana Foundation Grantee: 2009-2014
Charles Limb, M.D., has been fascinated with sound not only
for most of his career—but also his life. His medical specialty is
otolaryngology, and that work as a hearing and ear specialist has allowed him
to study the nature of sound as he treats patients with hearing loss, performs
surgery on the auditory apparatus, and helps restore hearing to deaf
individuals with cochlear implants. He is also an avid saxophone player and is
captivated by the creative impulses that give rise to good jazz, often
considered one of the most artistic forms of composition. His TED talk,
based on his research regarding the brain and musical improvisation, has been
viewed more than one million times. And his most recent studies are showing us
that music may indeed be the world’s universal language—neuroscientifically
What are some of the
biggest challenges of studying musical creativity from a neuroscience
It’s not just music—artistic creativity in general is one of
the toughest topics to study because it’s an elusive thing. Creativity is made
up of a very wide range of human activities that aren’t always so easy to
connect together. By their very nature, art and creativity are expansive
concepts with no real predictability. That means that it’s not really a natural
fit to try to confine them to the constraints of a scientific experiment.
The other issue is that artists and scientists are very
different kinds of people. For a scientist to try to design an experiment that
feels natural to an artist while still maintaining scientific validity and
control—well, that’s a very tenuous balance. It’s hard to design a study just
right. You really need to work closely with artists to design something that
Is there something different
about music? You say that artists and scientists are very different people, yet
most scientists I know dabble in music.
There are certainly a lot of scientific people who engage in
musical activities. But the tasks are different—meaning, the neurological
requirements of doing something like playing jazz versus the neurological
requirements of doing science are different. Again, it comes back to the tasks
involved with creativity being so varied. The purpose of art and the purpose of
science are vastly different. And those differences become very apparent when
you try to design an experiment to bind them.
But that said, I do think there is something structurally,
even architecturally, about music that makes it more amenable to analysis and
linear thinking in some ways. It’s definitely got a lot of math in it. And that
may make it easier to study empirically.
In a recent PLOS paper, you scanned the brains of musicians as they were having a “musical
conversation,” so to speak. Why was it so important to have that kind of
conversation, as opposed to just playing?
Music is about communication. One of the main goals is to
communicate some message of significance using sound. It’s an abstract form of
communication, certainly not the same as speech or language, but it definitely
involves the sharing of ideas and experience. Musicians naturally enter this
form of musical conversation when they play together. And I wanted to get at
this idea of music as a universal language and see what that might mean in the
The results were interesting. First, we definitely found
that musicians use the language areas of the brain when they are doing that
improvisation. And that’s interesting considering there was no talking—it was
all music—and the activity in the brain was greater when the musicians were
improvising versus when they just played memorized exchanges. It’s not just the
act of playing or listening that matters most, it’s having this musical
dialogue that gets the brain going. And it does so without the involvement of
brain areas involved with semantic cognition and vocabulary. The idea that you
can have these traditional language areas be highly active without the need for
vocabulary is pretty cool.
So much work in
neuroscience today is about networks and connections. And, historically,
psychologists discussed creativity as a sort of different “wiring.” How is the
work on the Connectome changing the way we think about creativity
It’s a good question, but we don’t have a real answer yet. We
have so much work to do to understand creativity in the brain. Our state of
understanding is like we’re peering into the frosted basement window of a house
and there’s a little corner that isn’t quite frosted. You can peer into the
corner of that window and try to understand the lives of the people who live in
that house. But you are only getting a really limited view.
At every level, whether we’re discussing the individual or
society, international or multicultural perspectives, there are layers and
layers on top of a fundamental human capacity to create. And how those layers
are actually implemented in the brain…well, I don’t think we’re even close to
being able to grapple with it yet, honestly. That’s why projects that tackle
creativity are so important. They give us new looks into a really fascinating
What is the importance of emotion to
creativity? What are we learning about how the two relate?
If music isn’t particularly good for propositional thought,
then why do we need it? Why can’t we just use language for everything? It seems
that music is exceptional at conveying emotion. And so it seems to me that emotion
has to be a completely fundamental part of the musical experience, whether you
are the perceiver or the producer. Emotion motivates composition, it motivates performance,
it motivates the listener. It’s the reason why people seek repeated exposures
to the stimulus. Everyone has that one song that you can listen to over and
over again. We’re like rats who are tapping a bar that gives you some sort of
drug relief. This suggests something about the brain’s hard wiring at a very
primitive level for emotions.
I wanted to look at emotion as an obvious co-factor for a model’s creativity
because it can’t be that our brain does just one thing for every creative task.
There must be different forms of the creative brain. But emotion was something
I wanted to hone in on in particular. What changes in the creative brain when
you use emotion as a target for your improvisation? Does it guide your
improvisation? Does it change what you see in the brain?
In a nutshell, if you take musicians and ask them to improvise based on
emotional faces, you see that emotion clearly affected the brain areas involved
with that improvisation. It’s interesting that this one static form of creativity
is starting to be dispelled and replaced with a more comprehensive, real-world
idea that many things influence which creative form the brain may take. Emotion
is likely one of those drivers because it directly influences the amount of
prefrontal cortex expression and also seems to influence the brain’s reward
areas as well.
going to get to the point where we can one day teach people how to be creative?
hope is that it will become clear, not just to parents and educators but also
to policymakers, that art matters. Not just for entertainment but for the
proper development of the brain. I hope to help dispel the idea of art as
entertainment, and help people understand that art reflects a fundamental kind
of neurological activity that’s linked to problem-solving, innovation,
creativity, and new idea generation.
we can make that connection for people, then the whole field of educational
neuroscience will continue to expand and influence policies where we’ll start
to say, “You know what? In order to have a more perfect society, we have to
start with young minds and utilize these well-known pedagogical methods to help
them learn creative behavior.” Expertise and training clearly matter. And I
think that will be a prerequisite for any high-level creativity activity.
of putting creative people on a pedestal and saying that you are either born
with the ability or not, we can help people evolve into creative people through
many different exposures and different contacts—and with a lot of practice. It’s
my hope that it will become commonplace.
So you don’t
think you either are creative or you’re not?
is a matter of both talent and expectations. Think of Little League. When you
sign up your kid for Little League, the coaches aren’t evaluating your child to
see if he or she is going to one day become Derek Jeter. They want the kid to
have fun, get some physical exercise, socialize, and build teamwork skills. There’s
no reason not to play an instrument just because you won’t grow up to be Yo-Yo
Ma. It is legitimate to believe that there are significant brain benefits
involved in engaging in creative activities even at a very amateur level. We
need to stop using lack of talent as a reason not to participate in art.