“Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.”
The above line is from the English translation of Haruki Murakami’s 1985 novel, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.” It offers a theory on the way in which the brain perceives the world.
Famous for his wildly successful experimental fiction, Murakami is also crazy about jazz. So it’s fascinating to learn that what Murakami has intuitively written about composing music — that the creative process of making music, particularly jazz, is linked to emotion — has now been confirmed by brain scans.
U.S. neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, scanned the brains of jazz pianists while the musicians were improvising songs on a small keyboard.
The scientists found that brain circuits known to be involved in creativity changed their activity when different emotions are expressed. In other words, emotion — in this case, simply whether the musician was creating happy or sad music — caused different parts of the brain’s “creativity network” to operate.
“The bottom line is that emotion matters,” says Charles Limb, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. “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.”
This might sound obvious. You might imagine that sometimes you may be feeling incredibly creative and inspired, and other times less so, and that these periods of varying creativity are linked to emotion. That may indeed be the case, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the same creativity circuit just operating at different speeds.
As Limb says, the new research suggests that creativity cannot be fully explained in terms of the activation or deactivation of a fixed network of brain regions. Instead, 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.
Scientitsts have conducted a number of studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study creativity. Musical improvisation, freestyle rapping and the rendering of caricatures are creative acts that occur in real time. They primarily don’t draw on planned or stored ideas, but on spontaneous thoughts. They are, therefore, perfect behaviors to study in a lab.
We already know from previous experiments that this sort of spontaneous creation deactivates a brain region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is involved in planning and monitoring behavior. You can imagine that when this constraint is taken away, ideas can flow more easily. This is why pyschologists sometimes talk about artists getting into a “groove” when they are working.
In the new study, published in the January issue of the journal Scientific Reports, researchers had jazz pianists playing a small keyboard while looking at a photograph. They were asked to improvise melodies to capture the emotion shown in the photograph, which was either a woman smiling or the same woman looking sad.
The results showed that deactivation of the DLPFC was greater when the musicians were creating happy music. In other words, the state of flow could be entered more easily when working on positive creations.
When working on sad tunes, however, the brain’s reward centers were more active. These regions reinforce behaviors that lead to pleasurable outcomes.
“There’s more deactivation of the DLPFC during happy improvisations, perhaps indicating that people are getting into more of a ‘groove’ or ‘zone,'” says lead author Malinda McPherson, “but during sad improvisations there’s more recruitment of areas of the brain related to reward.”
McPherson, who is herself a violist, says this suggests there may be different mechanisms that determine why it’s pleasurable to create happy versus sad music.
Brain-scanning studies are extremely difficult to interpret correctly. For example, just looking at a happy or sad image of a woman will induce all sorts of different kinds of brain activity. So to attempt to control for this the researchers also scanned the musicians’ brains while they just passively looked at the photos. They then subtracted the resulting brain patterns from what was recorded when the musicians were improvising.
The results should give scientists a better idea of the components of brain activity in emotional regions that are strongly associated with creating improvisations. The musicians were not prompted to make happy or sad music, but just to try and convey the emotion in the image they saw.
“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 says.
Murakami has spoken in the past about how he first got into jazz. He saw a jazz band in Kobe when he was 15 and was “thunderstruck.”
“Inside my head,” he wrote in The New York Times in 2007, “I did often feel as though something like my own music was swirling around in a rich, strong surge. I wondered if it might be possible for me to transfer that music into writing. That was how my style got started.”
Murakami wrote that he enjoyed free improvisation the best. “Through some special channel,” he said, “the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow.”
That we are now starting to understand the process of human creativity is like exploring the “hard-boiled wonderland” in us all. I would love to know what Murakami thinks about this.
Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”). Follow Rowan on Twitter @rowhoop.