Music does things to your brain. Your whole brain.
“When you listen to music, any music, the brain is activated in a very robust way,” says Charles Limb, a doctor and researcher at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine who specializes in the relationship between music and gray matter. “Literally almost every center of the brain is doing some sort of processing.”
How that processing happens and what it does is the focus of “Jazz, Creativity, and the Brain,” a presentation Limb will lead on Saturday. The event is part of the Kennedy Center’s “Sound Health: Music and the Mind,” a two-day celebration of a new partnership between the Kennedy Center and the National Institutes of Health.
The cornerstone of the festival — which features a lineup of performances, lectures and concerts — is a Friday concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra, soprano Renee Fleming, singer and “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, piano rocker Ben Folds and several neuroscientists, including Limb, ready to explain what the music is doing to your brain.
In his Saturday session, Limb will use jazz to explore the effects of improvisation on the brain. That brings in Vijay Iyer, who — along with singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding — will be presenting with Limb. Iyer, who’s been doing research with Limb for years, is a composer and jazz pianist known for his improvisational work.
“I’m not playing verbatim the notes somebody told me to play,” Iyer says. “I function with a certain amount of creative independence.”
When a musician improvises, “the prefrontal cortex is engaged, and one of its functions is conscious self-monitoring, censoring your output. That area of the brain is shutting down,” Limb says. Improvising well means a musician has to shut up the part of the brain that would typically be worried about “wrong” notes, enabling him or her to more easily let go.
During Saturday’s presentation — it’s like a TED Talk with music — “we’re going to speak about what we know about improvisation, about music and emotion from our experience,” Iyer says. “It’s not so much that we’re going to be hooked up to electrodes or anything like that or stuck in an fMRI. Though [Limb] has done that.”
Limb also wants to drive home that improvising — not just in music, but in any form — is good for the brain.
“The more ways you can challenge your brain, the more beneficial it is in terms of synaptic connections and neural processing,” Limb says. “Somebody who’s in their kitchen cooking or dancing, that is their way of stimulating that part of the brain.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; “Sound Health in Concert”: Fri., 8 p.m., $25-$39; “Jazz, Creativity, and the Brain”: Sat., 7:30 p.m., $20.