The National Institutes of Health enjoys a $40-billion budget, a network of more than 400,000 researchers worldwide, and some of the spiffiest facilities outside a Tesla factory.
So where did its director, Dr. Francis Collins, get the idea to cure sickle cell anemia with the virus that causes AIDS?
It wasn’t a laboratory. It wasn’t in a meeting. It was in a jam session.
As CBS’s 60 Minutes reported, “Dr. Collins was playing in the NIH rock band in 2016 when his bass player—hematologist Dr. John Tisdale—started riffing on an idea.”
Tisdale’s brainstorm was to use HIV to deliver altered genetic code to patients suffering from sickle cell anemia, an incredibly painful disease that disproportionately affects Black Americans. Researchers believe their stem cells, when injected into a patient’s bone marrow, will begin to create new red blood cells with the correct DNA. (Don’t panic; they remove the part of HIV that causes AIDS before injecting the stem cells.)
It’s that type of creative thinking that leads to breakthrough ideas in science and medicine. And it’s that type of creative thinking that music can inspire.
Science and research have a reputation for being “left-brain” activities, totally alien to “right-brain” activities like music and art. The reality is the opposite: Creativity is what enables scientific innovation.
“In science, you actually aren’t concerned right off the bat about getting the right answer—nobody knows what it is,” explained chemist Dudley Herschbach of Harvard University and a longtime leader of the Society for Science & the Public. “You’re exploring a question we don’t have answers to. That’s the challenge, the adventure in it.”
To find answers to problems in medicine and science, we need people who are willing to ask a simple yet profound question: “How might we?” In that sense, creativity is more important than scientific knowledge, and music is a pathway.
I’ve been playing piano since I was a young child and even worked as a full-time musician earlier in my career. And I believe—actually, I know—that music provides many benefits for innovators as they think about “how might we” and brainstorm new concepts.
Here are a few key reasons why music matters:
1. Music enables you to ideate freely.
Even if you aren’t a performer or a patron, you understand the importance of free association as a tool for incubating creative ideas.
That idea you formed in the shower (while you were probably singing the latest Top 40 earworm), that innovation that struck you during your hike or run, that solution that you came to you in a dream—those are all the fruits of ideas that formed when your mind was free to bang together different ideas and form new neural connections, without the boundaries of a whiteboard, briefing paper, or Zoom meeting.
For many people, music is an outlet for turning off their conscious mind and letting their mind wander into new places and possibilities.
2. Music convenes community.
Dr. Collins’ DNA forebearers, Drs. James Watson and Francis Crick, discovered the building blocks of life in Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, but that’s not where they announced their breakthrough. Instead, they ran straight to the Eagle, a pub where they regularly met with colleagues for lunch or drinks to shout the news from the rooftops. That made perfect sense because the Eagle was where they often went for community and where their ideas kept percolating as they shared a meal and talked about the news of the day.
Music offers a community in two important ways: It brings musicians together to create, and it creates shared experiences.
In an effort to encourage his staff in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Collins and his colleague Carrie Wolinetz rewrote the lyrics to John Lennon’s classic “Imagine.” Collins then performed it and posted the video on his YouTube channel. (The man has some piano chops, by the way.) The activity allowed colleagues to share in the humor of the new lyrics and smile at Collins’s attempt to be John Lennon.
3. Music improves your mental health.
Studies have shown that stress is the number-one creativity killer and that music improves not only your mental and emotional health but also your brain itself. Music is such a mood booster that it’s been proven to improve sleep, boost self-confidence, increase energy, and reduce stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts.
Dr. Collins believes so strongly in music’s power that he and opera star Renée Fleming established an initiative called Sound Health: Music and the Mind, which explores the links between music and mental health, including music’s role in brain health, child development, and creative aging. And he regularly writes about music on his NIH Director’s Blog.
You’re probably using music to improve your mood already, whether it’s that playlist you use to pump yourself up at the gym or the calm music you listen to before bed. So why not use music to improve your creativity?
The benefits are clear. Now go listen or play! To get you started, we’ve created a playlist for inspiration with our friends at the Disruptor League.