Brain on Jazz
Charles Limb is a medical doctor whose lifelong love of music inspired
his career choice. He plays dual roles as associate professor of otolaryngologyhead
& neck surgeryat John Hopkins and is also a faculty member
of the Peabody Conservatory of Music. A talented saxophonist, he interweaves
music and medicine through his innovative research into how creativity
affects the brain. Here he speaks with ABILITYs Chet
Chet Cooper: What kind of surgery did you do this morning?
Dr. Charles Limb: They call it an encephalocele, where brain tissue
herniates down into the temporal bone, above the ear. I had to go
in behind the ear to try to elevate and reduce the brain tissue, and
reconstitute the bony division.
Cooper: So all went well for the patient?
Limb: Really well. As a temporal bone surgeon, everything I do is
related to the ear. Its a field I enjoy, it suits my interests
and skill set nicely. I feel pretty lucky.
Cooper: Did your love of music lead you to become an ear doctor?
Limb: I was a musician who loved music my whole life. Im just
crazy about it. I not only like to listen to it, but to think about
it and study it, read about it and explore it. I want to understand
it better. It always mattered to me, well before I settled on a career,
or had an inkling that I could combine music and science.
Cooper: So you had an epiphany that you could connect the two?
Limb: It was a process. At some point, every musician grapples with
whether theyre going to pursue it as a profession, or do something
else to make a living. Some musicians absolutely feel that theres
no other road for them. And then there are other people, like me,
who could have gone into music, but I didnt feel like I deserved
to. And what I mean by that is I wasnt willing to suffer for
my art. You have to have the conviction, that you can ride out the
lows, to be a really successful musician.
In the meantime, I was good at scientific things. I loved music because
it was about life captured in all its essence, all of its beauty and
all of its pain. To me, medicine was similar. It captures life at
its most profound and its most mundane. Maybe, in a philosophical
sense, I felt very comfortable deciding to pursue a career in medicine.
My motivation may have been linked to music in some internal way,
but the reality of it was that I was going to medical school to become
a doctor. During those years, I thought to myself: You know what?
I can study hearing. And then, several years later, I thought: I can
study music; this could literally be the focus of what I do.
Cooper: Do you pipe in music when you perform surgery?
Limb: Whenever I can, because it enhances the aural environment in
which I work. Soft music allows me to enter a state of concentration
thats different from when the ambient sound is noisy or unpleasing,
given the sounds of the drill and other operating room equipment.
When I was growing up, I always preferred to work with music playing;
it allowed me to sit at a desk and work for hours, whereas without
music the silence was a distraction.
Cooper: Can your patients hear the music playing in the background
during their operation?
Limb: No, typically theyre asleep.
Cooper: So you dont do local anesthesia?
Limb: Every once in a while I do; in those situations I ask the patient
if they would like to hear soft music or not. Its up to them.
But most of my patients dont hear well, which is why Im
doing surgery on them.
Cooper: Do you place cochlear implants?
Limb: Exactly. Thats my area.
Cooper: So you get to speak to patients who may be hearing for
the very first time?
Limb: Yeah, its a pretty neat thing. Now, there are many different
kinds of hearing loss and many people get implants who did hear before
their surgery. A lot of them are people who havent heard in
a long time. So if you or I lost our hearing today, wed become
a cochlear implant candidate. When the implant is activated, it wouldnt
be the first time we were hearing, but it would be a whole new way
Cooper: Do you know Kathy Buckley?
Limb: I do not.
Cooper: Shes a stand-up comedienne and probably the most
notable stand-up comedienne who is deaf. Kathy was an advocate against
implants for a long time, as are many people within the deaf culture;
they dont feel there is anything wrong with being deaf. But
Kathy went on to get a cochlear implant some years ago and afterwards
we interviewed her. She talked about how, before the surgery, she
used to feel the vibration from the audiences laughter and watch
them participating. After the surgery, when she first heard the actual
laughter, she was so moved that she broke down crying.
Limb: Yeah, there are so many things we take for granted in this world
and one of them is to hear the sounds in it. Yet, whats interesting
to me is that whenever I talk to patients after theyve had cochlear
implants activated, their first observations tend to be pretty mundane.
For example, many patients say, I didnt know the toilet
was so noisy.
Limb: Or, I didnt know that when the dryer stops, it makes
a loud, obnoxious beep. What a funny way to encapsulate the
world of sound after your hearings been activated.
Cooper: I saw your TEDx talk about your study of improvisation on
Limb: Actually, I did two TED talks. The other one deals with music
perception in patients with cochlear implants.
Cooper: I saw the one about the different studies around jazz and
rap. You spoke about different activities within the brain and I noticed
the part where you said that when jazz is really happening, the brain
suppresses self-awareness. This makes me think about those moments
when singers close their eyes and go into their own space, as if they
dont realize theyre in front of millions of people watching
on TV or thousands in a live audience. Do you think thats whats
happening with them?
Limb: Yeah, and without being too sweeping in my generalizations about
creativity, I think that what most forms of art share in common is
that their creator is in a different mode of thinking, if you will,
than when theyre doing something thats not creative. What
Im getting at is that I think creativity, neurologically speaking,
is a very different state of mind, where youre generating lots
of ideas with some facility and some sense of reward or pleasure is
achieved in this process. I think that humans are hardwired to create.
Its not arbitrary that we do this kind of thing. I suspect that
its part of our very basic biology.
Now, to try to establish how that breaks down into different art forms,
for example, jazz vs. poetry vs. architecturethats where
it starts getting much harder for scientists to connect the dots.
Cooper: Some say, to be creative, you have to turn off your brain.
Limb: That is what my studies of jazz imply; theres a certain
component of conscious self-monitoring that one has to let go of,
to an extent.
Cooper: Because its too restrictive.
Limb: Correct. You overthink. Trying too hard to execute something
impedes your ability to do so.
Cooper: I was talking to some athletes about being in the zone
and I feel like theres something similar to what youre
Cooper: I ride motocross and theres a different space, a
zone. Its hard to get into it and sometimes you just cant.
But when you do, everything flows with such ease.
Limb: Thats right. Your conscious perception of reality is altered
and youre able to do things by letting your subconscious neuromechanisms
flow, which you cant do if youre consciously trying to
Cooper: Do you have goals for your studies around improvisation and
Limb: These studies are in their infancy. Were just beginning
to understand how creativity occurs in the brain. These are the questions
of a lifetime and I dont believe that theyll be answered
quickly. I have far too much respect for music and the arts to think
that a couple of scientific studies are enough to explain the whole
thing. Yet its possible that in a cleverly designed science
experiment, you could get closer to the truth.
My goal is to come up with a series of well-designed experiments,
so we can start to describe some of the fundamental neurobiology of
art and creativity. These studies of multiple art disciplines would
be ongoing and use different scientific techniques. The challenge
is that its very costly. It requires grants and this is not
an area where there are a lot of clear funding sources. Its
been difficult for me to get the backing to continue these experiments,
despite the fact that theyve been well received and have generated
so much interest in the media and the public. The NIH [National Institutes
of Health], for example, doesnt feel that understanding creativity
is a part of its mission.
Cooper: Perhaps youll have to be more creative in the way you
write up your study, so that it fits in with something that they can
understand is a part of their mission.
Limb: Yes. I may have to be a little more strategic.
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from the Amy
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Federal Wellness Programs: Kendall Hollinger Allergies
on Ice: Charles Limb, MD Jazzology & Your Brain: China
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