In a 2008 study published in the journal PLOS, Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at the University of California, San Francisco and accomplished jazz saxophonist, and Allen Braun, a speech researcher at the National Institutes of Health, designed a clever way to observe creative expression in the brain: an fMRI machine with a specially made musical keyboard. The two men recruited six professional jazz musicians for the study; while in the fMRI, the participants performed musical exercises ranging from a memorized scale to a fully improvised piece of music.
Observing the musicians’ brain activity as they performed each task, Limb and Braun found that when their subjects improvised, a region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) became less active. Like a neural mother hen, the DLPFC is connected to planning, inhibition, and self-censorship; its deactivation has been suggested to play a role in altered states of consciousness such as daydreaming, meditation, and REM sleep. (A separate imaging study published in the journal Nature in 2012 found a similar lulling of the DLPFC during freestyle rap.) This pattern of brain activity, Limb and Braun wrote, may be “intrinsic to the creative process,” which “can apparently occur outside of conscious awareness and beyond volitional control.”
Their findings support a fundamental model of creativity developed by Arne Dietrich, the author of How Creativity Happens in The Brain and a professor of psychology at the American University of Beirut. Dietrich argues that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is central to creativity, and depending on the particular creative activity, the region will either significantly slow—as it did in the jazz study—or ramp up.
In other words, creativity is necessarily a variable phenomenon. At times, it’s the composer’s strict pen: intentional, revisionary, critical. And at times, it’s the spontaneous new melody: unconscious, experiential, flexible. So what determines which creative path a person takes in a given moment?
Earlier this year, Limb co-authored a new study led by Malinda McPherson, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard-MIT Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology, to address that missing element. The study also asked jazz pianists to improvise in an fMRI scanner; this time, though, the musicians were instructed to first review photographs of a woman wearing a positive, negative, or neutral expression, and then to try to match the photo’s mood with their improvised melodies.
The results were somewhat surprising. McPherson’s team predicted the creativity-related DLPFC deactivation from the previous study would be found equally in the negative and positive improvisations, but it was much more pronounced during the happy trial. The researchers also found that the negative-photo improvisations showed greater activity in certain brain regions connected to cognitive control and reward; specifically, there was increased connectivity between the insula, an area that controls visceral awareness, and the substantia nigra, an area responsible for reward and pleasure.