Episode 1: The Neuroscience of Music with Dr. Bob Bilder


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:00

Hello, my name is Dr. Wendy and here at the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. We’re on a mission to change the culture of health and make the healthy choice the easy choice. Starting in our own backyard, we’re implementing evidence based changes right here on campus. Welcome to our center’s podcasts, LiveWell. Join us as we interview leading experts and discover new perspectives on health and well being. Each episode, we will bring to you scientists and world class operators, who will share with you the never before broadcasted tips to live a more healthful and wholesome life for yourself, community, and ultimately our planet. What are the origins of hearing or what is the evolutionary benefit of music? And why do we get chills when we listen to certain songs? Today we will talk to UCLA neuropsychologist expert Dr. Bob Bilder, about the neuroscience behind music and its benefit for our health and wellness. Bob is the chief of neuropsychology at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and director of the The Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity. Do we have your interest now? You might even be interested in his research, which is focused on the links between brain and behavior using tools spanning genetics, neuroimaging, cognitive, and other assessments of human behavior. I think my brain just did a little gymnastics. Bob has been studying the brain basis of creativity across species, and identifying brain and behavioral traits associated with exceptional or Big C creativity in humans, which we will discuss today. He is particularly interested in studying dimensions of brain function to help eliminate artificial boundaries between mental illness, between health and disease, and between the brain mechanisms involved in exceptional and everyday creativity. He also directs the MindWell pod within the Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA to concentrate on how we can support resilience, well-being, and creative achievement at UCLA and beyond. Please join us in today’s conversation. Dr. Bilder will discuss the relationships between music and the brain. What is happening in our brain when we listen to music? Can music help with addiction? What are the differences in our brains between highly creative individuals, protegees, and the regular person? And what does Herbie Hancock have to do with all of this? Thank you so much for being here, Bob. I mean, I’m so excited to hear your answers for these questions I’ve been putting together with the UCLA students, staff and faculty. This is our UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative podcast series, and we’re focusing on healthy mind and healthy body. Who’s better to talk about that, but you Dr. Bob Bilder, you know, you’re a neuroscientist, you’re a musician, you research creativity, and I think Herbie Hancock is going to be entering into this conversation as well.


Dr. Bob Bilder  03:43

if Herbie’s doing anything you got to listen to it, if he’s involved, it’s going to be good.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:45

Right? Well, let’s get to Herbie then right away. He was a guest lecturer at this presentation at the music school here at UCLA and the professor fainted or nearly fainted on stage. And I was called into action with had to put my physician hat on and I rushed up and took care of him. And as the ambulance left, Herbie and I had a conversation, he learned a little bit about the Healthy Campus Initiative. And so a little while later, he approached me and asked me if I knew anybody that could speak to the neuroscience of music and its relationship to health and well-being as well. And so of course, you came immediately to my mind, and the reason I didn’t realize was even more apparent once you explained to me that not only do you study creativity in your day job, you also in your weekends, you have a dad band, tell me what a dad band is. It’s the first time I’ve heard that phrase.


Dr. Bob Bilder  04:50

Yeah so there were a bunch of guys, we got together. We were all dads at the UCLA Lab School. We were lucky enough to have our kids go to the UCLA Lab School, which is a fantastic place and sitting around at some school that we started talking about music and we realized that at least three of us all shared an interest in one particular kind of music, which was music from pretty much the 70s and has been referred to as progressive jazz or Sophistafunk and among the artists that each one of us had followed, Herbie Hancock was the main man in some of his albums from that period, including The Headhunters album and Thrust. And this was like our standard go to stuff. So we as dads got together and tried to play some of these songs, which were way over our head. Another friend of mine who used to be a drummer in our band in high school, I sent him our playlist, and he said, “No sane musician would attempt to play that playlist.” So we’re not sane musicians, we’re just dads. It’s fine, we have a good time.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:51

That’s why you keep the title Dad’s Band just to bring everyone down to reality. But Herbie, if you ever hear this, we need a keyboard player. First of all, you must have cleared the decks from your schedule, because it’s so packed.


Dr. Bob Bilder  06:05

I’m so excited. How many times does somebody call me up and say can you come and give a lecture to Herbie Hancock’s class? This is crazy.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:12

And not only was it for Herbie, it was for his elite musicians who were recruited from all over the world studying the Monk jazz program in jazz, right, so only one of two in the whole country.


Dr. Bob Bilder  06:25

That’s really an amazing thing to try to talk to that group about music. It was also very intimidating. You mentioned that another professor who was giving a lecture fainted, well, I think I was probably close to fainting a couple of times. Oh, my God, you know, to talk about music to these musicians is very difficult. And my familiarity with it is you know, only in passing, and trying to understand you know, how the brain could produce music, come to enjoy music, and all that kind of good stuff.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:53

Can you tell the listeners what you taught me, which was so sort of revealing about the neuroscience of music and the origins of music in the brain, like the relationship.


Dr. Bob Bilder  07:03

One of the one of the really fascinating things that I learned and trying to understand the neuroscience of music is how hearing came to be in the first place. If you think back through evolutionary time, and back to single celled organisms, they don’t have any ears, obviously. But you know, those even those simplest of animals, ones that really had just one cell, and maybe a tail that could help them wiggle and move in the waters where the light was, so they could get more food and nutrition. Even those animals had some kind of sensory function. So they would sense what’s on the outside of the cell and that would help to drive their little tail.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:38

They could sense vibration, or


Dr. Bob Bilder  07:40

Well, they were more sensitive to light and chemical environments. But over time, and as we developed into multicellular organisms, then sensitivity to vibrations became important. Now first, that was just embedded in the body of the animal. And right now, all of us can experience sound, if you take a tuning fork, and hit it and then put it against your skin, you can feel the vibrations.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:03

That’s right. Well, that’s what doctors do, we learn to do that on your head to see if you can sense the vibration on either side.


Dr. Bob Bilder  08:10

That’s right. Yes, you guys call that bone conduction, versus conduction through the air. But then over time, what happened is, animals began to develop these very sensitive membranes and parts of their skin surface or their body surface that were much more sensitive to vibrations that are conducted through the air, the sound vibrations, and then those ultimately evolved from being just little thin membranes on usually the sides of the head into real ears that help to amplify the volume and then in humans, there’s a special apparatus that helps to segregate the high frequency sounds from the low frequency sounds. And a lot of brain has been dedicated to unpacking the auditory signals and the vibrations that come into our ears, interpreting that in the brain and classifying different vibrations as different notes, different frequencies, picking words out and identifying meaning all these functions the brain has evolved to enable us to process. Then there’s some other really interesting things that have to do with the possible impact of music and other rhythmic sounds on group cohesion, and social functioning. Really fascinating theories have evolved, they’re very hard to test because we can’t go back in history. But it’s been hypothesized that there might be something about having shared rhythms that enabled people in early times in human evolution, to work together, to hunt, synchronizing their steps in ways that didn’t alert other animals in the environment that they were coming so they could successfully hunt, they were quieter and coordinated. There may be other aspects of shared experience that helped to bond social units. So one of the things about humans and certain other species is that they tend to hang together in social structures.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:03

That’s what you’re describing as the evolutionary basis of music is that there was a connector


Dr. Bob Bilder  10:09

That’s right, that is one of the ideas, it’s that it helped us to share experiences and bond together and because when you are listening to music you are sharing a common experience and are brought together by the rhythmic and melodic structures.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:24

I know in that talk that you gave you talked about the four f’s in the limbic system, and can you elaborate on that?


Dr. Bob Bilder  10:31

Sure. It comes right back to what we were talking about in terms of evolutionary significance. You know as the brain evolved from its most primitive levels up to the fancy brain that we have now as humans but this limbic system has been described as mediating and supporting the four f’s functioning in humans which we can identify as feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproductive behavior. So those are very key paths that we take to identify behavior.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:01

That gets a big laugh usually when I see you speaking to the students, undergrads.


Dr. Bob Bilder  11:07

That is one way people will remember this stuff, right?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:08

I know, actually I remember the four f’s more than anything else about the brain.


Dr. Bob Bilder  11:15

It’s clear how each one of those directly relates to our ability to survive as a species. If you’re missing any one of those then you’re likely not going to survive as well as other animals.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:27

I remember you did this limbic system and the four f’s getting back to sort of the more primitive area was also an area that lights up with music. Are there other sort of feedback loops that go on that are in that primitive area?


Dr. Bob Bilder  11:40

Yes, that first we want to recognize that you know when we experience music, it’s hitting all parts of our brain. Some aspects of musical expression could only be interpreted by the highest levels of our brain where they carry certain nuanced meanings that in the same way that language communicate certain meanings, music can also carry certain meanings. Indeed some of the regions of the brain that are language processing zones also can be engaged by music and some music of course is very representational or has very sophisticated layers of meaning that go beyond it’s emotional impact, but all that being said, i think that one of the things that we love about music is that it does hit also these more core and limbic brain functions. Cyanic connects in some ways more directly with some of these emotional centers and i think that’s you know a fascinating aspect of music appreciation. I mean a great example is the experience of chills when we’re hearing certain musical expression and it seems like that kind of experience which has been referred to by some people as a skin orgasm but seems to be found when there’s a certain surprisal to the music following a period of expectation. So i think that if you can think to those elements of music that may have given you chills often it’s the result of you following the thread of the music through some kind of expectancy and then suddenly the expectation is either satisfied or there’s a complete surprise just an example would be a chord progression that deviates from what you expect but then it resolves to a harmony or a melodic element that you already had implanted in your expectations. It is this kind of resolution that seems to result in this big shift and this experience of chills.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:43

That’s considered to be more in their primitive brain to relay that response?


Dr. Bob Bilder  13:48

Yeah, while a lot of the setup for that and how you expect things comes from higher brain centers, the bottom line of many of these kinds of experiences probably extend from our reward system which is baked in at a pretty primitive level in our brain, in the brainstem and limbic levels. So when we experience something that’s better than what we expected, we get a positive surge of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. If something is not as good as what we expected, then there’s actually a decrease in that same signal. This has been referred to as prediction error; our cells, our brains are constantly predicting what is going to happen next. We have expectations all the time, so if what actually happens is better than what we expected, then we get this positive production of a surge of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and then through a whole bunch of other connections that increases the likelihood that you’re going to do again whatever it was you were doing when you had that surge. In contrast, let’s imagine that you’re expecting something good to happen and nothing good happens or something bad happens. The brainstem is going to quiet down and not send any dopamine up to the accumbens and you’re going to become less likely to repeat the same actions that led to that problem. This is how learning actually takes place; how we develop habits is usually by having some reinforcement through reward. 


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:15

That leads me to this question: the four f’s, we don’t have to be really aspiring to meet any of those who any major extent these days at least in our current setting. Would it be too much of a reach to say that we could make a list of what you’re describing as the positive reinforcement? Music would be one, I would imagine, and could there be other things that you could say, okay if i’m conscious of these habits that do give me that positive feeling that are positive for my life that you could then enhance that and then look at the areas that are negative and sort of remove those? Is that a methodology that people utilize based on your neuroscience description of the brain?


Dr. Bob Bilder  16:07

I think it is, that’s one of the real bases of modern psychotherapies to do pretty much exactly this to help people identify what are the things that are important and valuable to them and then helping them align their actions with those high level values and goals. In that way, if people can begin to select their actions based on what is valuable to them, then they’re going to find that those are going to be more satisfying because it’s actually connected to things that are very valuable and potentially very physical. It can help to overcome distractions or overcome bad habits, things that we don’t want to do that might be suggested to us, like eating that extra bowl of ice cream.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:49

So it could act as a deterrent for that because you can replace that extra bowl of ice cream if you’re bored or something with listening to music. Is that what you’re suggesting?


Dr. Bob Bilder  16:59

Exactly. In fact that replacement is a critical thing. Punishment doesn’t work. Punishment only leads to the delay in the behavior occurring again.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:10

or feeling like you’re deprived.


Dr. Bob Bilder  17:12

That’s right. I think the one thing that is important that just struck me while we’re talking is that we don’t want to ignore our limbic systems. We could use our frontal lobes, the highest levels of development of the neocortex, to try to dampen and shut down that limbic system, but i think that would lead to all kinds of problems. I think what we want to do is have a good balance and have…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:32

Wait, what’s the problem if you ignore your limbic system?


Dr. Bob Bilder  17:35

Because then it will it will express itself in one way or another. It will end up controlling the rest of the body in unusual ways or it’ll bleed out into the other parts of the brain and mess up the higher level functions.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:48

You mean that if you don’t satisfy the fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction.


Dr. Bob Bilder  17:55

That’s right. That dynamic balance has to be maintained so that the limbic system is still functioning. If various forms of expression can connect to the limbic system and enable it to be expressed, and if the is experiences of lust are converted and expressed through love, then that may provide a good avenue for expression. But if there aren’t love options and the lust is repressed, then it could lead to explosions of lusty behavior in an inappropriate context.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:26

Yeah, which you see sometimes when people are completely deprived of anything, right?


Dr. Bob Bilder  18:30

That’s right.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:32

Well feeding, you have to feed.


Dr. Bob Bilder  18:34

That’s right, and you have to feed, but some people control their feeding too much. You’re familiar with one of the deadliest diseases, is anorexia and bulimia, that leads some people to over control those limbic centers in ways that are dangerous.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:48

Fighting and fleeing, how can you satisfy those?


Dr. Bob Bilder  18:51

Yeah, a play. It’s an interesting thing that some people would suggest that play is something that has evolved in connection to fighting and fleeing. You ever see dogs play?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:01

Oh sure yeah, sometimes it scares me but you’re right it’s not really fighting it’s playing. But it looks like fighting.


Dr. Bob Bilder  19:10

And a lot of chasing. And who’s chasing whom…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:13

So tag’s a great–


Dr. Bob Bilder  19:13

–perfect example. I think that is a neat re-expression and highlights the value of play because we don’t have opportunities to fight and flee in exactly the ways we used to.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:25

What else lights up there besides the four f’s and the music?


Dr. Bob Bilder  19:29

Whole lots of other centers in the brain that are specialized for what we call semantic processing or extracting meanings out of these elements. Language is a perfect example. Language is a kind of music that involves sequentially organized in time changes in the frequency of sound. Now our brains and human brains have developed an incredible lot of brain territory dedicated to this processing of language so that we can detect the differences between very, very subtle sound differences. For example, if I say the words, Ben and Kim, does it sound like the same word repeated twice or two different words?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:14

Two different words.


Dr. Bob Bilder  20:15

It’s possible to distinguish those because you can tell the difference in what’s really occurring just in like the first 50 milliseconds, that utter in “b” versus “p.” The only difference is “b” has a gentle closing of the lips, where “p” has a plosive, or rapid separation of the lips with the sound and letting the air escape in that way. This is a very subtle difference yet, you can resolve it with 100% accuracy. That’s a real tribute to how much the part of the brain, usually in the left temporal lobe, gets overdeveloped. Sometimes the territory there can be seven times larger than the comparable brain region on the right hemisphere, dedicated to this processing of sounds for speech. Now, in music, we also extract meaning from the sequentially organized in time fluctuations in the frequencies of the sound, but it follows different rules. We actually can see that as people get more training in music, they transfer some of the processing capacities from the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere, as they learn the rules that are associated with musical processing. So if you have novices attend to certain musical tasks, they will show this right hemisphere preference and it will be more widespread in its brain activations. Whereas a skilled musician will analyze it immediately and classify it in its left hemisphere modules, which is more like language.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:48

Which is so cool about the brain, isn’t it that we now are knowing that it’s so elastic, and you can do these connections even at a late age, by learning new languages and different sports,


Dr. Bob Bilder  22:02

and playing instruments is something that’s supposed to be good for your brain as well.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:03

Yeah, picking up a new instrument or learning a new song on an instrument. And that really touches on what we were talking about earlier about how the brain is much more complex than this description of all the different sort of anatomic areas that we’ve been spending a lot of time on that there’s a lot of connectivity between back and forth, up and down, sideways. You talked about language and I remember in the talk that you gave with Herbie, that music came before language, can you elaborate on that?


Dr. Bob Bilder  22:37

I think that there’s not really enough information about exactly what the timeframes were for developing language and music. But it looks like there were certain shared rhythmic patterns that occurred in social groups before language even developed. Now whether that’s really music? Certainly it’s not like Watermelon Man, but it gives us a broad definition of music in that way. Probably those shared soundscapes were important to humans, even before formal languages developed. We can also identify that those are simpler than some aspects of language. However, there are probably other aspects of language that were developed very early. If I say, “Help!” then you know that I’m in distress, right?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:23

Yes. No matter what word you say.


Dr. Bob Bilder  23:27

Other species are capable of these kinds of vocalizations. Another interesting vocalization which is also very primitive, is the infant cry. There’s a key part of the limbic system that’s known as the cingulate gyrus that is particularly sensitive to these infant separation cries and is particularly well developed in mothers. If that territory is damaged, then mothers will stop showing a sensitivity to infant cries and neglect their offspring. That, of course, has bad evolutionary consequences. We see variations on that all the time.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:06

In mostly developed countries, but now developing countries. But now developed countries take a form of what’s called kangaroo care where it was developed in Colombia, the country where they didn’t have enough incubators for preemies and newborns that needed to be in an incubator. They would put them skin to skin to the moms and wrap them around. Moms would act like incubators. The child’s temperature dropped, their temperature wouldn’t rise and maintain the temperature of the these preemies, except for drug addicts. They didn’t have that kind of communication emotional communication to be able to incubate their babies. It might be explained through some of the potential damage or interruptions of this limbic system. It’s possible. Anyway, they found that that was a key difference between mothers who were more in tune with their babies and mothers who were disconnected mostly because of habits that were addicting–bad habits. I want to get back one more time to this question because I feel that these negative behaviors that are routinely cited as ways to feed the reward system, like drugs, nicotine, but also gaming–the smartphone is now looking to be quite addicting– gambling, what do you think can be beneficial to make a living, I mean what other things besides music or other things that you might observe yourself that help feel positive for your reward system, what do you know that lights up in the limbic system that would be something to give people ideas about that they could try?


Dr. Bob Bilder  25:49

I think when we see all these kinds of problems emerging it usually comes from some root cause. Some of the root causes that we know are relevant are anxiety and the lack of social connections support. Those two features can be worked on usually in psychotherapy and also through other positive psychology activities and just focusing on the relationship building and building the other tools that support resilience. I think that’s something that is part of our work in the Healthy Campus Initiative; we’ve been trying to work on identifying first how to make sure that people don’t feel the stigma associated with problems like anxiety that can lead to seeking out other ways to get reinforced like drugs or alcohol. Alcohol was the first drug ever identified and it does a great job of going and dampening certain aspects of this anxiety system in the brain.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:50

Which is where? Where is that anxiety system?


Dr. Bob Bilder  26:53

Interestingly there’s this great additional cocktail party lingo, what’s called the septohippocampal system. There’s a loop that’s part of the limbic system that goes from the septal nuclei and projects to the human hippocampus. In that hippocampus really seems to be some of the key brain systems that help to stop ongoing behavior in a sort of a freezing reaction and help us be alert to things in the environment that might be threatening. The cause of anxiety is often felt to be an increased sensitivity of that system so that it may fire under relatively not threatening circumstances, maybe hyper attuned and thus we end up feeling threatened even when we’re not really being threatened and engaged that circuitry now if you then experience that as experienced as being quite unpleasant as anybody who’s ever been anxious, which is everyone and recognizing…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:50

Sometimes a little anxiety is a good thing too.


Dr. Bob Bilder  27:53

There is the whole Yerkes-Dodson law. We’re getting all kinds of great stuff to bring up at the cocktail party. Yerkes-Dodson law, that’s the law that is the inverted u curve so that it defines, when you put anxiety there, there’s a certain peak level of anxiety which your performance is the best, but if you get more anxious than that then your performance deteriorates. But if you’re not anxious at all, if you’re too laid back, then you’re not going to perform your best either yeah. An interesting thing is that the more you practice something, the higher you can push up that anxiety function and still be performing better. That’s why world class musicians, world class athletes, will often turn in their best performances under situations where they are performing in front of thousands or millions of people because they can push it to that level. They can get there and without a deterioration in performance. Others like me, if i’m asked to play a bass solo, I fall apart immediately. Just the words make me scared. Some of the people resort to alcohol or drugs in order to get out of that bad feeling. The question is how can we then treat that with more advanced forms of psychotherapy? We try to get to well what are the roots of that problem? They go back to earlier trauma that one has experienced etc. There are also behavioral ways to try to get past that to desensitize people to anxiety-provoking stimuli and then find other behaviors that aren’t using alcohol or drugs that can be substituted.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:25

Like running for me. I run every morning for that reason.

Dr. Bob Bilder  29:29

Do you feel good?



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:30

Oh yeah, it moderates my anxiety.


Dr. Bob Bilder  29:33

It has a lot of other beneficial effects.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:35

I get my best ideas when I run.


Dr. Bob Bilder  29:38

There you go, it’s good for your brain.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:40

That’s right, that’s what I hear, am I right?


Dr. Bob Bilder  29:44

Yeah of all the work we’ve been doing trying to understand what are the positive things you can do for your brain, among those positive things you can do for your brain, physical exercise is certainly one of the best.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:54

Even brisk walking, I’m assuming, right?


Dr. Bob Bilder  29:56

Even brisk walking.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:57

I think that says a lot. You’ve explained getting to the root cause is critical of what might cause you to lead you to poor behaviors, and then replacing it with healthier behaviors.


Dr. Bob Bilder  30:12

One thing I didn’t mention, which just comes to mind is, when you’re talking about the problematic use of mobile phones, which is a product I’d love to work on here on our campus.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:22

Me too, there’s no question that we’re going to see a social well-being–poor social well-being epidemic.


Dr. Bob Bilder  30:29

This is also an evolutionary throwback. Before we developed all those frontal lobes, it was certainly wise to go for the bird in the hand. In ancient times, if you let go of the bird in the hand, you’re not going to get the bird in the bush. Immediate gratification is built into our brains, it’s really baked in. It’s only through having this extra cortex that we’re able to delay gratification over longer periods of time, and make more rational choices. When we do plot out these so called discounting functions to see how much is a reward now valued relative to awards you could get at some later point in time, we discount the stuff that’s further away in the future. So, from investments, imagine I give you this alternative: I’ll give you $100 now or I’ll give you $200 in six months, which would you take?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:25

Well, I would take the $200.


Dr. Bob Bilder  31:27

You see, you’ve got very strong frontal lobes.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:30

I don’t need the $100 now, right? See, if I needed it, maybe I would take it.


Dr. Bob Bilder  31:35

You’ve engaged in a very rational process that illustrates the power of your frontal lobe. However, that exact example is just about at the average place where people think it’s about the same. However, in reality, nobody has an option to double your money every six months. That’s about the steepness of the typical human delayed discounting curve. We often make choices. That’s one of the reasons why cigarette smoking persisted for so long, so you get the immediate reward. Most people knew that you got a risk of cancer in less than 20-30 years. But people didn’t think about, well that’s in 10 or 20 or 30 years, and it’s only a partial risk, it’s not a sure thing. In the face of those probabilities, people continue to do the thing that provided the immediate gratification. It’s a matter of connecting up the immediate actions with the longer term values and rewards that is the key to overcoming a lot of these problems.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:32

That’s right, or doing the opposite, where you can have the rewards in the primitive and the more cognitive areas. Going back to music, playing music could satisfy everything.


Dr. Bob Bilder  32:48

That’s right. It can light up the whole system. Brainstem up to the…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:54

Just getting back to your time here, you’ve been here at the UCLA Semel Institute for 16 years. But before that you’ve had a distinguished career in researching mental illness at Columbia, Albert Einstein Hillside Hospital and Nathan Kline Institute. How did these previous roles prepare you for your role at Semel Institute, the leader of MindWell pod and researcher of Creative Minds?


Dr. Bob Bilder  33:20

I’ve been super, super lucky. In those earlier experiences, I was able to do a lot of different things. I’m trained as a neuropsychologist, so typically, neuropsychologists get into how to measure behavior to understand how the brain is functioning. But then in our research, we come back to my dissertation, I started getting into neuro imaging. At that time, we didn’t have MRIs and CAT scans. I used to trace the size of different brain bits on her scans directly. It was really difficult because the little measuring thing would skip. It was not fun. I had to do it again, and again, and again. Now, I got computers, that can do all that for you automatically. I learned to do brain imaging of brain structure and then imaging of brain function. Subsequently, when the functional MRI came along, I was able to get involved in doing that. I was lucky enough to be involved in a center where we did what are called neurophysiology, basically gathering brainwaves and studying the electrical activity of the brain. So as you know, another discipline called neurophysiology, and then I was able to start looking at genetics as well, because over the last 20 years, we’ve developed these tools that let us look at the human genome in amazing ways. When we started, we sort of picked off certain candidate genetic markers that we thought would be useful. Then we realized, well gee, that’s not as informative as looking at all 3 billion base pairs, but that was prohibitively expensive. Now, we can do that and it probably will be done soon in every human, whole genome sequencing, as it’s called. It is going to happen that we’re going to be able to connect the genetic risks all the way up through the proteins and the cells and the functioning of the brain to the expression of human behavior and see how everything is connected together. One of our NIMH directors referred to it as that genetics is providing the edge pieces to the puzzle of the human mind. It’s become sort of a scientifically tractable problem to figure out how all of this biology works to produce this incredibly complicated human experience. I’ve been lucky to be involved in a lot of different aspects of that. I probably don’t know anything in much depth, but a lot of breadth. I had the opportunity to do and then after coming to UCLA, I have increasingly been thinking, what could I do that would be really good for people. I had been studying schizophrenia for a long time. I had a very sobering experience once giving a talk to a group of people, families of people with schizophrenia, and a person says, “Of all the things you’ve done, Dr. Bilder, you’ve published, you know, hundreds of papers, and given, you know, hundreds of talks, what do you think has been of greatest benefit to the people who have schizophrenia?” As I searched the things I’ve done, I’ve thought, not much! Most of the work I had done, it was really related to more basic scientific issues, which may have a payoff in the very long term, but it didn’t have as much immediate impact. I’m really starting thinking, what would be, just as we’ve been talking about how to line up your high level values with your immediate actions, what can I do that would actually help people now and that’s where it was so great to have Jane Semel as the key benefactor of our Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. She changed the title of it from the Neuropsychiatric Institute to the Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, specifically to help bridge the gap between those people who were identified as having mental illnesses and the rest of us, which I don’t identify as being different from the people that have mental illnesses. I’ve always been interested in seeing how can we overcome the stigma that’s associated with mental illness? How can we identify those things where we are all the same? We’re really sharing these dimensions of well-being and not well-being.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:13

You’ve always told me it’s just sort of a spectrum or you can move in or around it in terms of the definitions of well-being and emotional health and challenges.


Dr. Bob Bilder  37:27



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  37:29

When you do your studies on creativity, I know people also do studies on creativity with people with schizophrenia, right? I would love to know what have you found in terms of who are these creative people and what have you learned that distinguishes people that are creative? Because this is sort of the positive side of emotional well-being because a lot of people who are considered diagnosed with mental illness are actually among the most creative.


Dr. Bob Bilder  38:00

It is certainly true, but I think that there’s a popular misconception that that’s a good thing about mental illness. I think that what most of the research is pointing to now is that, yes, there are certain things about pushing oneself to the edge of certain dimensions that help creativity. But we developed the idea which we refer to as the the edge of chaos. It’s actually a model that comes from systems theory. It can be used to talk about the origins of life, economic systems, and all kinds of complex systems. But what we think is probably the case in humans for creativity, is that there’s a certain envelope that you can push to the novel, if you go too far. It’s not going to connect to the rest of the world, and it’s not going to be perceived as being creative. So there’s novelty up to a point, before it starts just being considered weird by everybody else. That’s called the edge of chaos.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  38:56

What defines weird?


Dr. Bob Bilder  38:57

It’s defined by the community, unfortunately. That means that something that is considered weird today might be considered perfectly normal tomorrow. Yet, that is important for the survival of those ideas, they have to somehow make it past the current domain or the current culture in order to be preserved. So like Herbie Hancock was playing some pretty crazy stuff back in this hard, bop era into the funk era, but more than much other jazz music, it really connected to people in a way that was unique. I think that’s why some songs really stuck. It was new, totally new, different from what went before but connected in certain ways to people that ended up preserving it. I think the same is true in the creative arts. We’ve been finding that again, here. How lucky is this? We received support to study what we call Big C or exceptionally creative visual artists, exceptionally creative scientists, and then exceptionally creative musicians. One of the things we found is that in each of those groups, not so much the scientist since they’re a bunch of academics, tends to prune out certain problems that people have…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  40:09



Dr. Bob Bilder  40:10

I know, I know! We need to support more of that. But it’s interesting that when we look at measures of what we call psychopathology, things that have been referred to as schizotypy, which basically means entertaining really unusual ideas. Well, it’s not that big of a surprise to know that the visual artists, and the musicians actually were high on some of those scales. They weren’t up in the range of people with diagnosable mental illnesses, but they were higher than the typical person. So they were more likely to entertain unusual ideas.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  40:44

What are unusual ideas?


Dr. Bob Bilder  40:47

That other people can read your mind or that you could put your thoughts into somebody else’s mind, that other things that are going on in the world are actually about you or they have special meaning. You ask a scientist these questions, but nah they say that’s not really true. But you ask a visual artist, we ask our friend Cathy Opie here at UCLA, a great photographer, Doug Aitken, another amazing artist here in LA, well yeah, maybe! They’re very open minded. When we look at personality characteristics, that’s one thing we find, that openness to new experiences is very high, and people who have creative temperaments and are high in creative achievement. There’s also another fun finding that we observed in a group of healthy people, that the ones who have more creative achievement tended to also differ on another personality characteristic known as agreeableness. Some people were more agreeable than others. The ones who had higher creative achievement were less agreeable, they’re more disagreeable. We think that that’s reflecting their tendency to challenge the status quo. Some people just don’t accept things because somebody else said it’s true. An agreeable person might say, “Oh, that’s fine.” But the disagreeable person would say, “Oh, I’m not so sure. What’s the evidence that supports that?” I think that prides, some meat in creative science and and other other domains.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:13

That’s a real juxtaposition. Open minded, but not agreeable.


Dr. Bob Bilder  42:18

That’s right.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:18

It’s interesting. But that sounds like something that people could adopt if they were trying to build their creativity. They could work on being more open minded and also challenging perhaps the status quo.


Dr. Bob Bilder  42:32

That’s right. One of my favorite quotes about how to promote creative expression comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which I love to say, because I feel like I’m pronouncing…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:41

You’re so good at it.


Dr. Bob Bilder  42:42

Yeah. Less people call him Mike.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  42:47

Oh, that’s good for me.


Dr. Bob Bilder  42:49

But he’s the guy who has written literally the books about creativity that are some of the best in the world. He also is the individual who brought to light the ideal flow, that state of effortless productivity and creativity that, we all see. One of the things he said if you want to promote creative expression, he says, “You should surprise someone else every day.” He also said, “You should surprise yourself every day.” I think that this process of seeking surprise, is one of the key activities that you could engage in to promote creative achievement.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  43:27

That’s sort of like what you were describing with the music, if you got surprised by something at the end, that was satisfying or exciting.


Dr. Bob Bilder  43:37

That’s right. And those people who love jazz, I think that whole process of being taken out very far from where you started, and then suddenly having a comeback to the head…melodic line, where to have it all resolved, that is just an amazing thing.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  43:52

That makes you feel good. I remember you saying in your lecture about music, that there’s some relationship to health in terms of impacting people, for instance, in intensive care units or other settings. What do you attribute that to?


Dr. Bob Bilder  44:11

I’m not sure. I mean, it’s sad that there hasn’t been more thorough scientific study of these kinds of processes. We know that there is a beneficial effect of music in medical settings. It’s not known whether that’s mediated pretty much all through relaxing effects, or whether there’s more to it than that. There also could be more trivial explanations. For example, one of the key sources of problems in medical settings is the ICU environment. There’s lots of flashing lights and sounds. And ironically, there you have people where they’re there to rest, yet they’re woken up every four hours in order to have vital signs. How crazy is that?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  44:51

So crazy.


Dr. Bob Bilder  44:53

Rather than letting a person sleep and rest, which would probably have a much greater beneficial…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  44:56

Which will be another topic of our pod. We have to do sleep.


Dr. Bob Bilder  45:02

Yeah. So you know, the mechanisms through which music helps people’s health remains unknown. Yet one of the things that’s interesting from a health perspective is true for music and probably true for other things as well, is the sense of being away. When people looked at environmental factors that contribute to well-being, one of the things they found is that, the more you can help people feel that they’re in a different place, that may be beneficial, that it inspires their sense of all and provides a feeling of connection to something larger, that may be beneficial. I think music can have that impact. People can be immersed in it and be taken away from where they are right now and have a real sense of being in a unique space.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  45:49

Getting back to creativity, is there anyone that inspires you that you would identify as someone that has been creative?


Dr. Bob Bilder  45:57

Yes. I can’t not mention Herbie Hancock.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  46:02

You’re right.


Dr. Bob Bilder  46:02

Every time I listen to those songs…I sort of focus on the baselines. But then, when I listen to what he does, playing keyboards, it’s just unbelievable how he ever came up with the ideas to play what he’s playing when he’s playing it. It really gets me every time.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  46:23

That’s why you would like to image his brain. So tell me about that, the imaging of brains? What’s the difference? Are you seeing anything among those that you are imaging?


Dr. Bob Bilder  46:32

We have, I mean, some of the things are interesting, but not very surprising. For example, visual artists, we see have parts of their brain structure in visual cortical areas that are bigger. Now you could say, oh well maybe they decided, this part of my brain is bigger, I’ll go and become an artist. Maybe it’s easier for them if they were born that way, but I think it’s more likely that they exercise those aspects of their brains to such an extent that it grew. We know that there’s through what we call experience dependent plasticity, the capacity for the brain to grow a lot in response to exercise of certain cognitive functions. We know that doing cognitive exercise can grow these bits of brain. It was surprising to me that we would actually see it in these visual areas from people who are visual artists, they didn’t do that much exercise, perhaps. So that’s interesting. Then there’s another interesting thing that we see that links together different creative groups with the artists and scientists show a pattern of functional connectivity in their brains. That’s unique. When we look at the functional connectivity in the brain, it’s sort of like looking at those maps of airline routes, that you see in the seat back pocket, right? If you look at each airport as a node in a graph and then every airport is not connected to every other airport.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  48:00

That’s right.


Dr. Bob Bilder  48:02

LAX connects to New York. And then LAX connects to other regional centers in the Southwest. But you don’t see flights from LaGuardia to Burbank, you don’t see everything connected to everything else as a more random pattern. Instead, the airline pattern is very efficient and spanning long distances with a few routes, and then having lots of local routes to get everybody where they need to go. That’s called the global efficiency. When we look at those kind of metrics of how the brain areas connect with each other, because we can map that, when people are at rest in the scanner, we can look at which patterns of brain activity are correlated with each other. We can basically say, “Where are the planes flying in the brain?” and make a map of that kind of a route map of the human brain at work. What we see is that these Big C creatives are actually showing a pattern that’s more random, with other stuff connected randomly to other stuff. Maybe you can go from LaGuardia to Burbank, if you’re a Big C creative.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:07



Dr. Bob Bilder  49:09

I was really impressed that we saw that across two different groups, scientists and artists who couldn’t be more different in some ways, yet share this spark of creativity.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:19

And again, is it the chicken or the egg? Right? Did they have it before or is it something that they built up over time?


Dr. Bob Bilder  49:26

That’s right, this is something that we need to do more research to find out. An amazing finding, just published, it’s hot off the press.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:35



Dr. Bob Bilder  49:36

Yeah. Go pick up your copy of Neuropsychologia today.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  49:42

We’ll definitely post it on as a link. We have to, your description of the circuits in the brain and comparing it to a map of an airline is very understandable. For people like me and my brain. Very helpful.


Dr. Bob Bilder  50:01

You have an amazing brain as you’ve already proven.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  50:03

I hope so, I haven’t been recruited for the Big C though. That’s gonna be something I’ll have to aspire to. Can you explain what Big C creativity is?


Dr. Bob Bilder  50:13

When people talk about creativity, they sometimes talk about every day creativity or Little C creativity, as distinct from creative genius, transformative creativity, or Big C creativity, creativity with a capital C. So that’s been called Big C creativity. A lot of studies looking at creative achievement will grab what I refer to sometimes as free range humans, not selected for creativity and study a bunch of them, and you can rank them in terms of their creative achievements. Like in Visual Arts, I once painted something when I was in high school that I hope no one will ever see. But that was my greatest artistic achievement. That gives me a one or a two on the scale that goes up to seven. But our artists that we recruited for the Big C project, had multiple international exhibitions, and so they’re in a whole other stratosphere of artistic achievement. The typical person doesn’t get above a three. So the Big C individuals are those who’ve made clearly landmark achievements within their respective domains. People always wonder, when we do studies of Little C creativity and find dimensions that are associated with creative achievement, well what about the Big C creativity? How does that explain Picasso and Mozart? In the Big C creativity studies, we try to go out and find those people who are one day going to be seen as the Picassos and Mozarts of our era.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  51:36

Do you see a difference in their brains, Little C and the Big C?


Dr. Bob Bilder  51:40

Well, there we haven’t compared enough of Little C’s who could be matched on creative achievement to the Big C, it’s a sort of definitional problem. That study is hard to do, what we’ve done is compared our Big C’s to what we call smart control group. One of the first things we realized when studying Big C creativity is that we would face scientific criticism, because people would say, “Oh those Big C creators are just smarter than everybody else, they just have higher IQs, etc.” Especially when we’re looking at Big C scientists, they all got doctoral degrees. Some of them several doctoral degrees. They’re hyper educated. Even our visual artists were quite educated and very intelligent. If we just studied an average group of people, people would say, “Well, but they differ in all these other properties.” We found a smart control group of people who were very high in intellectual ability. In fact, not significantly different from our Big C groups in estimated IQ. So in that way, we’ve looked at really smart people and the differences I talked about, this more random pattern of connection seems to be a big difference. It also looks like in that paper that’s in Neuropsychologia, what we found is that the Big C people didn’t need to work their brains as hard to get the same results in tasks that require divergent thinking. If I asked you to say, what are the unusual things that you could do with this water bottle? Then you might think, well, I could use it to water the plants. That’s not a very unusual idea, right? But what if you said, I could use it to practice my balance, I could put it on my head and practice walking with it as a posture. Now that’s a little bit more creative, right? We have tasks like this, where we ask people to produce as many unusual uses effect as they can. And it turns out that our Big C people didn’t have to exercise their brains as much. They didn’t show as much activation as the smart controls did when performing that kind of task. They got about the same amount of stuff, same amount of production in that task, but didn’t have to work as hard.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  53:48

Wow. Because they were so probably revved up.


Dr. Bob Bilder  53:52

I think that maybe they’re used to doing that sort of thing.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  53:56

That too, but maybe the connections too well, going from LaGuardia to…


Dr. Bob Bilder  54:02

that’s right going from LaGuardia to Burbank. Maybe it’s easier for them to make those remote…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  54:10

I’d like to end this wonderful conversation with one question, especially since it’s been mostly about music. I’d love to know who your favorite artist might be and what’s your favorite playlist that will make you feel nostalgic.


Dr. Bob Bilder  54:26

I’m really tied to this whole 1970s Sophistafunk era. Herbie Hancock is front and center in that group. I also find to be very transporting, John McLaughlin was playing what they said is his last concert, and they’re playing the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra, which I heard in 1972 in Keene, New Hampshire, when I was a high school student. Yeah, we escaped from the school.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  54:55

You mean you played hooky?


Dr. Bob Bilder  54:59

I think it was against rules. It was a boarding school. I think we weren’t supposed to leave campus. I went with my buddies up to see John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  55:09

You’re quite creative because you pushed the envelope there. So go for it.


Dr. Bob Bilder  55:16

He was quite an incredible musician. I mean, not only is he a legendary guitarist and guitar virtuoso, some people say without parallel, but the kind of music that he invented was really unique, really playing with novel time signatures, totally unique melodies and harmonies that no one else would think about. Remember, Miles Davis commented about John McLaughlin when he was playing on one of his albums, he goes, “Man, that is right off. Yeah.”


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  55:49

Wow. If you get somebody like Miles Davis commenting.


Dr. Bob Bilder  55:54

Yeah, yeah.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  55:55

Did he meet your expectations, even this many years later?


Dr. Bob Bilder  55:59

Unbelievable. I can’t imagine because he’s, what’s the word, not a spring chicken? He must be in his 70s, 79… To be able to play, it’s very physically demanding. It’s unbelievable, he’s known by many for the rapidity with which he can play. I just can’t imagine how his brain and muscles can still move at that rate with precision. But anyhow, he’s just an incredible guy.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  56:27

How did you feel, like physically?


Dr. Bob Bilder  56:30

Yeah, we were talking before about free song. So I had multiple experiences of free song during the course of that.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  56:36

That’s like the goosebumps.


Dr. Bob Bilder  56:38

That’s right, because these melodies were so ingrained in my psyche, you know, over the last 50 years that to then hear them live and to see John McLaughlin there, and to have it resonate with this entire experience of wow, that was 50 years ago where I heard that same song by that same musician.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  56:57

Live, which also has such significance.


Dr. Bob Bilder  57:01

With friends who really appreciate that music as well.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  57:04

So you remembered your friends too. That brought some nostalgic memories. It shows that exposing your kids even maybe even in utero to music could have this kind of imprinting that potentially could bring back these wonderful feelings of contentment or histologia.


Dr. Bob Bilder  57:26

Could do in theory. I like the idea, but you have to show me the studies that people have done.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  57:33

Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s all theory, as you said.


Dr. Bob Bilder  57:38

We’ll do the studies.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  57:39

Hey, that’s a good idea.


Dr. Bob Bilder  57:40

We can get together between the brain science and the pediatrics.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  57:46

I like that a lot. Yes. Very positive too, creative! Maybe we just flew from LaGuardia to Burbank. We created a connection with our own brains. Thank you so much, Bob. You’re amazing. You’re such a jewel for our campus and I’ve learned so much from you over time about breaking down stigma around emotional well-being issues and music, just laughing and knowing that, you know, you can pursue a lot of different areas of science and still be a scientist. Meet lots of famous people along the way.


Dr. Bob Bilder  58:25

Well, it’s so nice. I’m so honored that you would speak to me about these things. You’re really a great force for the greater good here on our campus. It’s really wonderful.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  58:34

Thank you Bob. That makes me feel good.


Dr. Bob Bilder  58:36

…leading the way. You always say onwards and upwards.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  58:41

Onwards and upwards. It’s a group effort, it takes a university. Thanks again. All right. Bye. Thank you for tuning into LiveWell today. Today’s podcast was brought to you by UCLA’s Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. For more information on Bob’s new study on brain circuits, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. To stay up to date with our latest podcasts, make sure to follow our Twitter and Instagram @livewellpodcast.

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