Researchers may have figured out exactly where creativity comes from in the brain

Besides pure intelligence perhaps the main ingredient that separates man from animals is our ability to be creative. Humanity has always taken refuge in our ability to convey complex thoughts, emotions, and ideas in an abstract way. Imagine a world devoid of creativity; no music, works of art, books, or movies. It’s a chilling thought. Creativity is the hallmark of the human experience. 

All of this begs the nagging question, where does creativity come from? A popular theory that has persisted for years states that more creative people think with the right side of their brain, while more analytical or logical individuals tend to favor their left side. While there is some neurological evidence to back up this claim, many scientists have expressed their skepticism. After all, how could a trait as complex as human creativity be boiled down to something as simple as “left versus right?” 

Researchers from Drexel University’s Creativity Research Lab recently performed a brain-imaging study on a group of jazz guitarists in an effort to unlock the neurological mysteries of creativity. As expected, the results were nuanced and anything but cut and dry.

They discovered that creativity is driven by different brain areas depending on the situation and the person. Musicians who weren’t all that experienced at improvising tended to favor the right hemisphere of their brain, while jazz musicians who were known to improvise their jam sessions frequently displayed more activity within their left hemisphere. This indicates that creativity is usually a “right-brain ability” in unfamiliar situations and a “left-brain ability” once a person has gathered a great deal of experience at a particular creative activity.

A total of 32 jazz musicians took part in the study, and each participant had their brain activity monitored by high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) while improvising music. Some were more experienced at improvisation than others. Each musician recorded six songs, for a total of 192 recorded jazz improv sessions. Those recordings were then played back for four expert jazz musicians and teachers so that each could be graded for creativity and quality.

This discovery regarding how the brain adapts and changes the longer one engages in a creative activity could prove very useful in shaping future learning strategies. The results point to experts in creative fields operating on an almost auto-pilot of sorts in which their brain performs on a subconscious, automatic level. Once an artist has reached this level it’s difficult to change their habits or receive further instruction from a teacher. On the other hand, more novice individuals, for instance, a relatively new painter, are much more deliberate and conscious of their brush strokes.

It may be possible for scientists to pinpoint an exact timeframe according to brain activity readings when a creative artist is ready to relinquish some conscious control of their art, or even stop receiving lessons from an instructor. Similarly, brain readings could help indicate that a person isn’t necessarily ready to move on to that next phase. 

After the team of experts had rated all of the created songs based on creativity and quality, researchers compared EEG readings for highly rated songs with low rated compositions. For the higher-rated songs, they noted more activity in the musicians’ left brain hemispheres, while lesser rated songs displayed greater activity in the right hemisphere.

Now, while these results may initially suggest that the left hemisphere is more responsible for creativity than the right, the study’s authors caution that it just isn’t that simple. After accounting for the studied musicians’ varying levels of experience with improvisation, they found that the vast majority of brain activity differences between high and low rated songs occurred in the right hemisphere.

The less experienced musicians using the right side of their brains were still being creative but in a different way.

“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,” explains John Kounios, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the doctoral program in applied and cognitive brain sciences in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, in a press 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 full study can be found here, published in Neurolmage.