Trading Fours in the Brain Scanner

Charles Limb, Johns Hopkins

It’s important to take fMRI studies with a dose of skepticism. These are any of the studies that tell you “the brain lights up” when you do or think of X. Really, this “lighting up” is an fMRI scanner detecting changes in bloodflow to certain regions of the brain, assumed to correlate with increases in neuronal electrochemical activity in that region. These studies are certainly helpful with localizing function in the brain, and showing us what healthy versus diseased function looks like. But in mainstream media, it shouldn’t surprise us so much anymore that certain regions of the brain light up when we do or think anything at all. They better!

Charles Limb playing keys in the scanner.

That being said, here’s one of the coolest fMRI studies I’ve seen. Charles Limb studies the neural correlates of creativity– what happens in the brain when we play a piece of music that’s memorized versus when we improvise a solo? What happens in the brain when we “trade fours,” a classic improvisation technique in jazz? This 17-minute TEDxMidAtlantic talk is a must watch for anyone interested in creativity and the brain. See what Limb does that makes the audience burst into spontaneous applause, and all the great footage of jazz piano playing (and rap freestyling!) while in an fMRI scanner.

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Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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