Study: Minds Of Jazz Musicians Unlock Answers To The Origins Of Creativity

PHILADELPHIA — Neuroscientists have long wondered if there is a “creativity center” in the brain. The two hemispheres of the brain serve different functions, and the left brain/right brain theory says that people have a dominant side to their brain. Left-brained people are analytical and methodical in their thinking while right-brained people are artistic and creative. However, the brain is extremely complex and it seems unlikely that a characteristic like creativity emerges from a single brain region. So, scientists at Drexel University sought out to determine just that by studying the brains of jazz guitarists in a fascinating new study.

For their research, the authors used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to record the electrical activity 32 guitarists while they performed improvisations to identify the brain regions involved in the artists’ creative process. Some of the participants were highly skilled veterans, while others were still relatively inexperienced. Each guitarist had to improvise the guitar portion of six songs that featured drums, bass and piano components. All of the recorded improvisations were graded by four expert jazz musicians for creativity.

At first the researchers analyzed the EEG recordings to identify differences between recordings that were graded as highly creative and those that are less creative. They found that there was more left-brain activity during highly creative performances and more right-brain activity during less creative performances.

However, this analysis does not account for the level of experience of the musicians. When the researchers reanalyzed their data while controlling for the experience of the guitarists, they found that right-brain activity dominates during both highly creative and less creative performances.

Placing these two findings side-by-side, it seems like creativity originates in the right-hemisphere when someone is facing a novel situation. An inexperienced musician uses a lot of conscious effort during their improvisations that’s driven by right-brain activity. As a person becomes more experienced, their creativity relies on more routine and unconscious processes in their left-hemisphere that they have already mastered.

The authors conclude by touching on a very important distinction between two definitions of “creativity,” and the brain regions involved in each. “If creativity is defined in terms of the quality of a product, such as a song, invention, poem or painting, then the left hemisphere plays a key role,” concludes senior author and professor of psychology John Kounios, PhD, in a in a university release. “However, if creativity is understood as a person’s ability to deal with novel, unfamiliar situations, as is the case for novice improvisers, then the right hemisphere plays the leading role.”

The study is published in NeuroImage.

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