Creativity Changes Neural Patterns with Different Emotions

No one doubts that creativity is a complex process. Sometimes it just seems to flow, and other times it feels like there is nothing there. Scientists are starting to look at the neuroscience of creativity, and one thing seems clear – there is no such thing as “right brain” and “left brain.”

Creativity uses the whole brain, but certain areas can be activated or deactivated. The latest findings suggest that the activity in the creative brain can be different specifically depending on which emotions are involved.

jazz creativity

George Adams – tenor saxophone by Tom Marcello, Flickr

A creative brain in the zone

The lab of Charles Limb, MD has been studying the neuroscience of creativity for some time. Previously, the lab had looked at artists in the middle of creating – such as during musical improvisation, freestyle rapping, or drawing caricatures – and visualized their brain’s activity by fMRI.

What they had found was that a specific region of the brain is deactivated when the artists is working, and this region is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), involved in attention, motor planning, and higher functions. This neural state has been described as the “flow state” – or getting in the “zone” – that allows the artist’s creative juices to flow. The limbic centers of the brain, involved in emotions, are also reported to be unregulated in these creative situations.

Emotions and the changing creative brain

But Limb’s new research, led by graduate student Malinda McPherson, shows that emotions play a role in which parts of the brain light up; apparently, there is no clear-cut brain network specific for creativity.

In the research, jazz musicians were asked to create music on a keyboard corresponding to the emotions in an image. The images were either positive (showing a happy person) or negative (showing a distressed person) and the brain activity of the musicians was monitored by fMRI. The results of the experiment showed that the previously mentioned DLPFC region was largely deactivated with positive music, but not as significantly when the artists played more negative music. Instead, the negative music activated other brain regions associated with rewards. The brain’s responses to simply viewing the pictures were subtracted from the creativity-related scans.

Happy or sad creativity is different

Says McPherson, “There’s more deactivation of the DLPFC during happy improvisations, perhaps indicating that people are getting into more of a ‘groove’ or ‘zone,’ but during sad improvisations there’s more recruitment of areas of the brain related to reward. This indicates there may be different mechanisms for why it’s pleasurable to create happy versus sad music.”

Limb and McPherson are both musicians themselves – Limb is an accomplished jazz saxophonist and McPherson is a classical violinist.

How can we use this information about the creative brain?  If you need to undertake a creative process but seem stuck, perhaps trying to express sadness in your work may be more fruitful than trying to make something with more positive emotions. It may be interesting to experiment with your creativity using your own emotional states.

“The notion that we can study complex creativity in artists and musicians from a neuroscientific perspective is an audacious one, but it’s one that we’re increasingly comfortable with,” Limb said. “Not that we’re going to answer all the questions, but that we have the right to ask them and to design experiments that try to shed some light on this fascinating human process.”

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