Here’s a great TED Talk to get everyone thinking today.
Tyler DeWitt is a PhD candidate at MIT and an advocate of the idea that science education in high schools needs to take a turn for the less serious if we want kids to really get excited about it. Instead of the highly technical jargon of textbooks, he is in favor of turning science lessons into storytelling. “Science has become that horrible storyteller…who gives us all the details nobody cares about,” DeWitt says, and his goal is to change that. DeWitt also has a growing library of YouTube videos aiming at exposing students to topics in biology, chemistry, physics, and math in a fun, engaging, and (perhaps most importantly) relatable way.
It’s Halloween, folks, and you know what that means: Jell-O molds of brains and punn-y costumes (Freudian Slip, anyone?), right? Amirite? Okay, maybe that’s just me, whatever, guys. But I can name at least one cherished Halloween pastime that tends to be pretty popular across the board, and that’s the horror movie marathon.
As we learned earlier this month, the mechanisms by which our brains process fear are intricate yet animalistic—after all, we’re by far not the only species that experiences the sensation of fear. Though what may be a uniquely human instinct is the propensity to actually seek out fear (and the sensation of arousal that inherently comes with it)—a concept illustrated nicely in this piece from The Dana Foundation. This purposeful seeking-out of fear-inducing stimuli is undoubtedly present in the act of partaking in the aforementioned horror movie marathon, and a particular subset of said scary flicks (and the characters therein) will serve as the main focus of this post.
There are lots of types of scary movies out there, from the psychological thriller to the slasher film and everything in between, but today, for the purposes of this entry, our interests lie in the psychopathic killers. Whether your allegiances fall with Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, the psychopath is a popular character in cinema and in popular culture in general. But what makes this character profile so enjoyable and even attractive at times? And furthermore, what can we learn from the psychopaths among us?
If you were asked to describe the consistency of the human brain, how would you describe it? Like jelly? Cottage cheese? Dr. Katrina Firlik would say tofu—the “soft variety.” In her book, Another Day in the Frontal Lobe (Random House, 2006) Dr. Firlik, a practicing neurosurgeon, offers an insider’s perspective on the world of neurosurgery and recounts the journey that got her where she is today. Through her biting wit and the compassionate nature with which she describes her many patients, Firlik paints a vivid and engaging picture of a field about which many know only a little. More
We’ve all been exposed to jazz at one time or another—whether it be the musings of an accomplished jazz pianist or the improvisational skills of a saxophone player, jazz is something that’s familiar to us. But, when enjoying such a piece of music, we may not have considered the effect it has on the musician’s brain.
Charles Limb, musician and researcher at Johns Hopkins University, is specifically interested in the workings of the brain during musical improvisation. In order to better understand these mechanisms, he studied the brains of accomplished jazz musicians playing music in an fMRI machine.
The two pillars of his study—playing music which has been memorized and over-learned, and playing music which has been entirely improvised—were designed to pinpoint which brain regions were most active in each situation, as well as to see how differing amounts of creativity play a role in brain activity. Limb asked participants to first play a memorized piece of music on a specially designed keyboard, and then to improvise based on the scale progression of the previous piece.
What he found was quite interesting.
In the studies, Limb observed that, compared to the fMRI of brains playing memorized music, those playing improvised music typically had a higher amount of activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area attributed to self-expression, and a lower amount of activation in the lateral prefrontal cortex, an area attributed to self-monitoring. He postulates that in order for an individual to be creative, they must exhibit a sort of dissociation in the frontal lobe by which the large part of the brain controlling self-monitoring is not inhibiting self-expression of new, free-flowing ideas.
More recently, Limb has been studying another form of improvisational music, which he believes serves a similar social function to that of jazz—hip-hop. To do this, he has recruited the talents of accomplished hip-hop artists from the Baltimore hip-hop scene and studied their brain activity while they rap. The structure of the study is similar to that of the jazz pianists in that it was separated into two parts—one to study brain activity while performing a memorized piece and one to study brain activity while improvising. The participants were asked first to rap a piece written by Limb (which they had not seen before), and then to improvise based on a guideline of periodically prompted words. Though the study is not yet complete and no conclusive results are available, what Limb has seen so far has been quite promising.
Outside of Limb’s unique research, no extensive work has been done yet to study these phenomena. However, these results prove to be very promising in that they can offer new ways to think about creativity and the brain. Perhaps sometime in the future, with more sophisticated methods of brain imaging, it will be possible to understand the workings of the brain in other creative realms, such as dance. These and many other questions are coming closer to having answers.
Charles Limb: Your Brain on Improv – Video on TED.com
TED Blog – Hip-hop, creativity and the brain: Q&A with Dr. Charles Limb