Charles Limb gave a TED talk on research he and colleagues have done on brain imaging jazz musicians as they improvised. Pretty interesting stuff!

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http://www.ted.com/talks/charles_limb_your_brain_on_improv.html

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Will,

Thanks for sharing this video on creativity in musicians. The last part was not as easy for me to listen to since most rap music really bugs me! I’m not sure why. However, a lot of jazz I do like; what I don’t like I can find at least tolerable.

But enough about that, at least for now.

Charles Limb’s studies and other future studies might eventually reveal a lot of important new understanding of how creativity works in the brain. It is important to research with creativity in other fields as well since musical creativity might have some aspects to it that don’t carry over to other kinds of creativity.

For instance, I’m sure some aspects don’t carry over to mathematical creativity since mathematical creativity cannot be just beautiful; it must also be logically correct. The result that a subset of AxB (Cartesian product of two sets A and B) can be written in the form CxD where C is a subset of A and D a subset of B might be a lovely result, but it is false! Music, paintings, sculptures, etc. that are lovely qualify as valid music, paintings, sculptures, etc., but mathematics that looks lovely might not qualify as valid mathematics. So though mathematics can qualify as an artistic subject, there is much more to mathematics than art. That is, saying that mathematics is an art is certainly true but is an incomplete description because it is not solely art.

Charles Limb’s result that creative moments accompany a shut down of the analytic/judgmental parts of the brain remind me of something I had read in a playwriting book (by William Missouri Downs and Lou Anne Wright) I got back in college: If we are stuck and need a creative solution, we might just be better off separating the creative and judgmental sides of the brain. “Your creative and critical side are of equal importance, but like children, they must be separated to get any work done” (Chapter 7).

Perhaps there is some truth to that as well though I do question why these authors mention a study without mentioning any details as to where a written source on this study can be found. Not referencing the study does look suspicious–and certainly unprofessional! However, Charles Limb’s results do seem to line up with what these playwriting authors had said.

The study supposedly had set scientists in a think tank (the “tank” in the name I find a bit disturbing) and were asked to judge solutions to problems as soon as they had thought of them. They did not solve the problem. The next day, they were asked another problem but instead were asked not to judge any solutions right away but simply to record all solutions they come up with. They later looked at their solutions and judged them and ended up solving the problem. But the catch is that we cannot determine how many scientists were involved or who they were or what problems they were asked to solve. We can’t even verify that the second problem was not just the first problem repeated (so that they had time overnight to think about it!). We cannot verify the details because no reference is given.

The creativity questions also remind me about how mathematicians and other successful mathematics students develop persistance. Though mathematicians have learned to become persistant through their past efforts of persistance paying off for them, there must have been a time where they were motivated to try to be pesistant without any past successes to consider (our pasts do not stretch infinitely far back into time!). Could it be that mathematicians are already naturally more persistant than most people are (so that they did not really have to learn it)? Could it be that their passion for mathematics allows them to learn persistance without much trouble? Could it be something else or a combination of several things? I do not know, but such questions have arisen in my mind recently when I have yet again realized that many students do not have much persistence when it comes to trying to learn mathematics.

Jonathan Groves