Mind of blue: Emotional expression affects the brain's creativity network

January 4, 2016
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The workings of neural circuits associated with creativity are significantly altered when artists are actively attempting to express emotions, according to a new brain-scanning study of jazz pianists.

Over the past decade, a collection of neuroimaging studies has begun to identify components of a neural circuit that operates across various domains of creativity. But the new research suggests that creativity cannot be fully explained in terms of the activation or deactivation of a fixed network of regions. Rather, the researchers said, when creative acts engage brain areas involved in emotional expression, activity in these regions strongly influences which parts of the brain's creativity network are activated, and to what extent.

"The bottom line is that emotion matters," said senior author Charles Limb, MD. "It can't just be a binary situation in which your brain is one way when you're being creative and another way when you're not. Instead, there are greater and lesser degrees of creative states, and different versions. And emotion plays a crucially important role in these differences."

Most of the new research, which appears in the January 4, 2016 issue of Scientific Reports, was conducted in Limb's laboratory at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine before his move to UC San Francisco in 2015. In his surgical practice, Limb, now the Francis A. Sooy Professor of Otolaryngology at UCSF and an accomplished jazz saxophonist, inserts cochlear implants to restore hearing.

Previous research by Limb and others using imaging (fMRI) to study musical improvisation, freestyle rapping, and the rendering of caricatures—creative acts that unfold in real time and are therefore more amenable to laboratory studies than, say, painting—deactivate a brain region known as the (DLPFC), which is involved in planning and monitoring behavior. This DLPFC deactivation has been taken to be a neural signature of the "flow state" artists may enter to free up creative impulses.

But in the new study, led by first author Malinda McPherson, the researchers found that DLPFC deactivation was significantly greater when the jazz musicians, who played a small keyboard while in the fMRI scanner, improvised melodies intended to convey the emotion expressed in a "positive" image (a photograph of a woman smiling) than when they aimed to capture the emotions in a "negative" image (a photograph of the same woman in a mildly distressed state).

On the other hand, improvisations targeted at expressing the emotion in the negative image were associated with greater activation of the brain's reward regions, which reinforce behaviors that lead to pleasurable outcomes, and a greater connectivity of these regions to the DLPFC.

"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," said McPherson, a classical violist and first-year graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology. "This indicates there may be different mechanisms for why it's pleasurable to create happy versus sad music."

Because the images themselves might induce an emotional response in the musicians, in addition to the brain scans made while the musicians improvised, each scanning session also included a time period in which the musicians passively viewed the images. For each musician, any brain activity data generated during these passive viewing periods, including emotional responses, were subtracted from that elicited during their musical performances. This allowed the researchers to determine which components of brain activity in emotional regions were strongly associated with creating the improvisations.

Moreover, Limb said, the research team avoided biasing the musicians' performances with words like "sad" or "happy" when instructing the musicians before the experiments.

"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."

Explore further: Study of jazz players shows common brain circuitry processes music and language

Related Stories

Study of jazz players shows common brain circuitry processes music and language

February 19, 2014
The brains of jazz musicians engrossed in spontaneous, improvisational musical conversation showed robust activation of brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language and syntax, which are used to interpret the ...

Processing facial emotions in persons with autism spectrum disorder

November 30, 2015
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty recognizing and interpreting how facial expressions convey various emotions - from joy to puzzlement, sadness to anger. This can make it difficult for ...

Research team finds neurological notes that help identify how we process music

October 26, 2015
New York University researchers have identified how brain rhythms are used to process music, a finding that also shows how our perception of notes and melodies can be used as a method to better understand the auditory system.

Study of jazz musicians reveals how the brain processes improvisations

April 29, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- A pianist is playing an unknown melody freely without reading from a musical score. How does the listener’s brain recognise if this melody is improvised or if it is memorized? Researchers at the Max ...

This is your brain on freestyle rap: Study reveals characteristic brain patterns of lyrical improvisation

November 15, 2012
Researchers in the voice, speech, and language branch of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have used functional magnetic resonance imaging ...

Audiovisual integration in musicians

September 21, 2015
(Medical Xpress)—The study of brain plasticity and how brain structures are integrated into functioning network structures keeps leading researchers to musicians. Musicians, particularly those who have learned to read music, ...

Recommended for you

Scientists block evolution's molecular nerve pruning in rodents

July 27, 2017
Researchers investigating why some people suffer from motor disabilities report they may have dialed back evolution's clock a few ticks by blocking molecular pruning of sophisticated brain-to-limb nerve connections in maturing ...

In witnessing the brain's 'aha!' moment, scientists shed light on biology of consciousness

July 27, 2017
Columbia scientists have identified the brain's 'aha!' moment—that flash in time when you suddenly become aware of information, such as knowing the answer to a difficult question. Today's findings in humans, combined with ...

Social influences can override aggression in male mice, study shows

July 27, 2017
Stanford University School of Medicine investigators have identified a cluster of nerve cells in the male mouse's brain that, when activated, triggers territorial rage in a variety of situations. Activating the same cluster ...

Scientists become research subjects in after-hours brain-scanning project

July 27, 2017
A quest to analyze the unique features of individual human brains evolved into the so-called Midnight Scan Club, a group of scientists who had big ideas but almost no funding and little time to research the trillions of neural ...

Researchers reveal unusual chemistry of protein with role in neurodegenerative disorders

July 27, 2017
A common feature of neurodegenerative diseases is the formation of permanent tangles of insoluble proteins in cells. The beta-amyloid plaques found in people with Alzheimer's disease and the inclusion bodies in motor neurons ...

Mother's brain reward response to offspring reduced by substance addiction

July 27, 2017
Maternal addiction and its effects on children is a major public health problem, often leading to high rates of child abuse, neglect and foster care placement. In a study published today in the journal Human Brain Mapping, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.