Study looks for the source of creativity in the brain

Washington D.C.: Neuroscientists who studied the brain activity of jazz guitarists during improvisations have suggested that creativity prompted from an unfamiliar situation is a “right-brain” activity.

A brain-imaging study out of Drexel University’s Creativity Research Lab suggests that creativity is driven primarily by the right hemisphere in musicians who are comparatively inexperienced at improvisation. However, musicians who are highly experienced at improvisation rely primarily on their left hemispheres.

Recently published in the journal NeuroImage, the study suggests that creativity is a “right-brain ability” when a person deals with an unfamiliar situation but that creativity draws on well-learned, left-hemisphere routines when a person is experienced at the task.

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This research may contribute to the development of new methods for training people to be creative in their field.

For instance, when a person is an expert, his or her performing is produced primarily by relatively unconscious, automatic processes that are difficult for a person to consciously alter, but easy to disrupt in the attempt, as when self-consciousness causes a person to “choke” or falter.

The study was led by David Rosen, Ph.D., a recent Drexel doctoral graduate and current co-founder and chief operations officer of Secret Chord Laboratories, a music-technology startup company; and John Kounios, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the doctoral program in applied and cognitive brain sciences in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The team recorded high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) from 32 jazz guitar players, some of whom were highly experienced and others less experienced.

For the study, the researchers compared the EEGs recorded during highly rated performances with EEGs recorded during performances that were rated to be less creative. For highly rated performances compared with less-creative performances, there was greater activity in posterior left-hemisphere areas of the brain; for performances with lower ratings compared with those with higher ratings, there was greater activity in right-hemisphere, mostly frontal, areas.

The results suggest that highly creative performances are associated with posterior left-hemisphere areas and that less-creative performance is associated with right-hemisphere areas.

Some of these musicians who participated were highly experienced, having given many public performances over the decades. Other musicians were much less experienced, having given only a very small number of public performances.

When the researchers reanalyzed the EEGs to statistically control for the level of experience of the performers, a very different pattern of results emerged. Virtually all of the brain-activity differences between highly creative and less-creative performances were found in the right hemisphere, mostly in the frontal region.

This finding is in line with the team’s other research that used electrical stimulation to study how the creative expression is generated in musicians’ brains and its study of how experienced and inexperienced jazz musicians reacted to being exhorted to play “even more creatively.”

The new study reveals the brain areas that support creative musical improvisation for highly experienced musicians and their less-experienced counterparts and addresses the controversial question of the roles of the left and right hemispheres in creativity.

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