I thought I would write this post on the subject of creativity for two reasons. First, we nowadays seem to live in a world avid with innovation. People are attracted to new original things that enhance their ‘uniqueness’, but at the same time trends are becoming ever more ephemeral and what was appealing and new last month, is already forgotten by the next. Any company wanting to succeed in this rapidly bored society has to be able to keep up producing constantly new exciting information, entertainment, products, inventions and whatnot. Being creative is recognized today as an essential trait to have in order to thrive in society, and is closely related to the general concept of success.
The second reason is that music and the arts have always been bound to the concept of creativity. Although we acknowledge that people demonstrate creativity and creative thinking because of their ability to solve problems in effective and original ways in areas other than the arts, musicians and people who engage in the arts in general are automatically considered to be creative.
Creativity, what is it and how do we do it?
But, what does it actually mean to be creative? As can be deducted from big companies’ slogans such as Apple “think different”, Nissan “innovation that excites” or GE “imagination at work”, creativity is generally understood as the ability to use one’s imagination and critical thinking in order to come up with a novel solution to a problem that will work and that is liked. But when we refer to the ‘creative genius’ in the arts, we tend to consider creativity as otherworldly or almost magical inspiration belonging to only a few chosen ones. So, is creativity a trait that either you are born with or you are not? Or is creativity an ability that can be learned and applied to different domains? In order to provide an appropriate answer to these questions, and others such as how to assess or quantify creativity, scientists have proposed different definitions of what creativity is. Some have considered creativity as a cognitive ability; others as being embedded in the creative product and others see creativity as a mental state (closely related to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’) (Lopata et al., 2017).
However, according to Mónica López-González and Charles Limb (2012), the general consensus in research is that “[creativity] is a mental occurrence that results from the application of ordinary cognitive processes [reasoning, working-memory, representation, self-reflection and association]”. In this sense, every creative act involves the application of these cognitive processes to past experiences, memories and ideas in order to come up with new and significant solutions.
The next logical question is then, how do we do this? Well, there are some models that propose that creative thinking depends on two different ways (deliberate vs. spontaneous) in which information may be retrieved from declarative or long-term memory and placed in the working-memory buffer. In the deliberate mode, also known as analytical processing or Type 2 processing, deliberate attention (hence the name!) guides the process of retrieving information from long-term memory and placing it into working-memory. This type of processing will render information in the way of structured thoughts that are also filtered by our internalized structure of what is acceptable and correct. On the other side, in spontaneous mode, also known as intuitive processing or Type 1 processing, attention is not as involved in the retrieval of information from long-term memory. This yields thoughts that arrive into consciousness spontaneously and seemingly effortlessly. Another characteristic of intuitive processing is that information is moved into working-memory unfiltered, which may provide the advantage of removing possible biases and produce fresher more outside-the-box ideas. Although one may be tempted to assume that creative thinking answers to activation of the spontaneous mode (or more precisely to the lower activation of the attention modules), in fact creativity nourishes from both spontaneous and deliberate processes.
Now you may be wondering at what point is this going to relate to music! Well, it turns out that once again scientists have turned to music and musicians as an optimal standpoint from which to learn more about how the human brain and cognition work.
Because it is essentially musical composition on the go, musical improvisation has been used by scientists as a means to study the neural underpinnings of artistic creativity. Studies using brain-imaging techniques have found that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is important to creative thinking (López-González and Limb, 2012), and have specifically related the activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) during musical tasks to deliberate processing (Lopata et al., 2017), since this area has been found to relate to executive functions such as reasoning and inhibition. Deactivation of this same area (representing low cognitive control) along with a high activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) have been related to creative tasks that are assumed to require spontaneous processing of information (e.g. musical improvisation). An interesting thing to point out here is that inactivity of the DLPFC has also been related to REM sleep and mind wondering states (Lopata et al., 2017; Purves et al., 2004).
In line with this, Limb and Braun (2008) conducted a study in which they monitored brain activity using fMRI of professional jazz pianists during improvisation and playing from memory tasks. They found that during improvisation, deactivation of DLPFC and lateral orbital regions of the prefrontal cortex coincided with activation of the MPFC.
In looking into the effects of training and expertise on the nature of creative thinking, a study by Rosen et al. (2016) used transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to compare effects on both novice and expert musician improvisers as they performed a jazz improvisation on the piano. Their results showed that novices performed better when anodal tDCS on the right DLPFC was applied, while experts were in fact negatively affected in their performance. Also working with musician improvisers, a study using EEG this time, by Lopata and colleagues (2017) set out to test the hypothesis that frontal alpha activity (which is related to creative and divergent thinking) would positively correlate to the amount of formal training in improvisation of the participants as well as with the ratings of the quality of the improvisations. Their findings supported their hypothesis and furthermore imply that creativity is something that can be enhanced through learning and practice.
The previously mentioned research suggests that low cognitive control and high introspective and spontaneous generation of thought is involved in musical activities that require high levels of creativity, such as composing and improvising. Nevertheless, other creative tasks may actually rely on the interaction of both the spontaneous and deliberate modes of processing information.
Looking at the greater picture from studies on creativity in different domains such as poetry or visual arts, plus the ones looking at musical creativity such as the described above, Beaty and colleagues (2016) propose an interaction of the default and executive control networks in the brain as responsible for human creativity. In very broad terms, the default network (of which the MPFC is part) is related to resting states, and accounts for, among other things, autobiographical retrieval and spontaneous thought generation. On the other hand, the executive control network, which includes the DLPFC, is related to tasks that involve consciously directed attention such as reasoning or working-memory. They propose that the generation of fresh innovative ideas rely on the activation of the default network, while executive control is responsible for focusing this process to relevant, goal-specific constraints, the sum of which results in what we understand as creativity. The amount of interaction (vs. competition) of both of these networks will depend on the extent to which the task is goal-oriented but requires self-generated information. A goal-oriented task such as autobiographical planning for example, would require the executive control network to evaluate the relevance to the task (top-down processing) of the information that is being generated intuitively (bottom-up processing) by the default network. The degree to which executive control is involved in the creative task would then depend on the task itself and how much it requires evaluative top-down processing.
In a nutshell
To wrap up, research in creativity has been a growing field of interest during the past years that has already yielded very interesting results.
- Cognitive models propose two ways or modes in which creative thoughts are generated, namely deliberate and spontaneous.
- Mapping these two processes onto the brain, the deliberate mode would correspond to the activation of the DLPFC and executive control network and the spontaneous mode would correspond to the activation of the MPFC and other regions of the default network.
- The generation of intuitive and seemingly effortless streams of thought will drive creative thinking through the underlying mechanism of the activation of the default network of the brain and the deactivation of the control network, but cooperation of both networks may occur when the creative task requires goal-oriented and self-generated cognition.
- As for music, in a study looking at jazz improvisation, expert improvisers showed deactivation of executive control networks paired with activation of default network areas during improvisation, while the opposite occurred while performing a previously memorized piece (Limb & Braun, 2008), suggesting that creativity in music may be enhanced through spontaneous generation of thought paired with low cognitive control and inhibitory processes.
- To address the question of nature vs. nurture, a study using tDCS showed that novice improvisers benefited from enhanced activation of the DLPFC while experts experienced a negative effect from it (Rosen et al., 2016). A different study, using EEG to measure brain activity in musicians found larger frontal alpha activity (related to creative and divergent thinking) in improvisers with formal training than in those without formal training (Lopata et al., 2017). Both of these studies suggest that spontaneous processing capacity may in fact be enhanced through learning and practice.
Beaty, R. E., Benedek, M., Silvia, P. J. and Schacter, D. L. (2016). Creative cognition and brain network dynamics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20, 87-95.
Limb, C. J. and Braun, A. R., (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: an fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2).
Lopata, J. A., Nowicki, E. A. and Joanisse, M. F., (2017). Creativity as a distinct trainable mental state: an EEG study of musical improvisation. Neuropsychologia 99, 246-258.
López-González, M. and Limb, C. J. (2012). Musical creativity and the brain. Cerebrum 2012:2.
Purves, D. et al. (2004). Neuroscience. (3th edition). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.
Rosen, D. S, Erickson, B., Kim, Y. E., Mirman, D., Hamilton, R. H. and Kounios, J. (2016). Anodal tDCS to right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex facilitates performance for novice jazz improvisers but hinders experts. frontiers in Human Neuroscience 10:579.