Could jazz improvisation be a key to understanding how the brain invents? Could that creativity be studied? An accomplished jazz musician himself, Limb was the perfect scientist to tackle the project.
“I had always intuitively understood that the creative process in jazz improvisation is very different than the process of memorization,” he explained. “That is immediately apparent when you play.”
He decided to ask jazz musicians to play a memorized song while their brains were scanned inside a functional MRI and then to have them riff a bit during the scan to compare the differences.
“You say ‘go,’ and jazz players can improv at drop of a hat, so from an experimental perspective, it’s really easy to study, as compared, to say, a novelist,” said Limb, chief of the Division of Otology, Neurotology and Skull Base Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. “Just imagine I want you to write a novel on the spot, and every 60 seconds, I’m going to have you switch modes between something original and something you’ve memorized. it’s jarring and not how novelists normally work.”