Dr. Charles Limb explores how creativity affects the brain

Charles Limb presented on creativity and the brain as part of the Creative Matters lecture series. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

You can think of an experiment like a song — made up of many moving parts, but structured; sometimes very repetitive. Each little piece has to come together to make a bigger picture, or answer a question about the universe. Or, you can think of an experiment as a simple process to make sense of the world around us.

If you were to ask Dr. Charles Limb, a surgeon, prominent neuroscientist and musician who spoke to how musical creativity operates in the brain at the University of Iowa’s Creative Matters lecture series Monday, Nov. 12, he would most definitely nudge you toward the former.

The way Limb operates, both in his laboratory and in his OR, is deeply based in his lifelong “obsession,” as he calls it, with music: In fact, he says his love of the arts drove him to his current career path and current position as chief of the division of otology, neurotology and skull-base surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. Limb, who has played multiple instruments since his early childhood, is as much a musician as he is a surgeon; he brings that enthusiasm into his research design.

“When you love music, and you love the arts, you can’t think about anything else. That’s how I am with music, I can’t think about anything else … It’s actually been my whole career, the reason I’m a hearing specialist, the reason I run a lab, the reason I look into creativity is because I’m obsessed with the musical arts … it’s what my whole life has been about,” he told Little Village in a brief conversation before his talk.

Limb brought perspectives on his research into the science of creativity and the brain to a healthy crowd in the University’s Art Building West. Specifically, he spoke to how the actual structure and function of the brain is activated in musicians when they improvise. How does the brain allow for such intense creative function? In short: How is creative improvisation even possible?

Charles Limb speaks to an audience at the University of Iowa’s Art Building West on Monday, Nov. 12. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

In a talk peppered with quips, fMRI scans and more than a few melodies, Limb compared colorful images of musicians’ brains during improvisation. He used the flow of oxygenated blood to highlight real time, regional brain activity and how it compared to the amount of activity shown when a memorized piece was performed.

To make this monitoring possible, he rigged up a system in which musicians can play a small, plastic keyboard while halfway inserted into an MRI machine, so that their three-dimensional brain activity can be followed. In his opinion, there’s a clear difference, with activity increases in language areas of the brain and decreases in regions associated with self-inhibition.

However, his studies were not limited to instrumentalists alone. Limb’s research has also included a number of skilled freestyle rappers, using the same memorized-versus-improvised system, comparing a pre-written rhyme to ones generated entirely by the artist using intermittent single word prompts. When their brains were monitored in the MRI, similar areas and expansions of the brain’s function were noted.

Can this lead to larger assumptions about creativity itself and how the brain can be trained or altered to be more creative? For Limb,these findings bring up more questions than they do answers.

As more discoveries are made, and ideas like these influence the way we see the brain and it’s creative process, Limb urges that there is still more work to be done on how these new understandings are applied. Alongside the technological advances and academic discoveries propelling the neurological and hearing sciences into the future, Limb believes that all of the new information, all of “the amazing stuff that gives rise to creativity … [has to be applied to] all of these advances, toward questions that are important to the arts.”

Questions that focus on how the mechanics of brain functions, such as those above and others he raised in his talk, can actually influence the way people can think or create.

During his presentation, Limb drew on a clip of a white parrot dancing to a funk song on the crest of it’s guardian’s couch, he poses the idea that life — that humanity itself — could not survive without creativity, without finding patterns out of the randomness.

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“Science is, in many ways, it’s own art form,” Limb said. “[I] think that there’s a lot of creativity in science. When it’s done well, it can be very elegant.”

He went on to say he can’t see science as we know it existing without creative generation and the arts themselves. The joy of a good data set, he said, has “an aesthetic all it’s own.”

“On a more metaphorical level, both science and the arts are seeking the truth,” he told Little Village. “To me, that’s the link that really connects them.”

Limb’s talk was part of the Creative Matters lecture series. Based in the UI’s Office of Research and Economic Development, this series works to bring artists to the Iowa City community to share and educate on how creativity effects and enhances life — from neuroscience to musicians and beyond. The last presentation for 2018, from singer-songwriter Alsarah, takes place this Friday, Nov. 16, at Hancher Auditorium.