Mind of Blue: Conveying Emotion Affects Brain’s Creativity Network

Study of Jazz Pianists Finds Spontaneous Creation of ‘Happy’ and ‘Sad’ Music Evokes Different Neural Patterns

By Pete Farley

stock image of hands playing a piano

The workings of neural circuits associated with creativity are significantly altered when artists are actively attempting to convey emotions, according to a new brain-scanning study of jazz pianists.

Over the past decade, a collection of neuroimaging studies has begun to identify components of the neural circuitry that operates across various domains of creativity. But the new research suggests that creativity cannot be fully explained in terms of the activation or deactivation of a fixed network of brain regions. Rather, the researchers said, when creative acts are linked to conveying specific emotions, the nature of the emotions strongly influences which parts of the brain’s creativity network are activated, and to what extent.

Charles Limb, MD

“The bottom line is that emotion matters,” said senior author Charles Limb, MD, an avid jazz musician and physician-researcher at UC San Francisco. “It isn’t just a binary situation in which your brain works 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 of these states. And emotion plays a crucially important role in these differences.”

Most of the new research, which appears in the January 4 issue of Scientific Reports, was conducted in Limb’s laboratory at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine before his move to UCSF in 2015. In his surgical practice, Limb, now the Francis A. Sooy Professor of Otolaryngology at UCSF, specializes in cochlear implantation to restore hearing.

Deactivating Planning and Monitoring Behavior

Previous research by Limb and others using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study musical improvisation, freestyle rapping and rendering caricatures — creative acts that unfold quickly in real time and are therefore more amenable to laboratory studies than, say, composing a symphony or writing a novel — deactivate a brain region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is involved in planning and monitoring behavior. This DLPFC deactivation has been taken to be a neural signature of the “flow state” artists may enter to free up creative impulses.

Watch a 2010 TED Talk by Charles Limb, MD, about the effect of musical improvisation on the brain.

But in the new study, led by first author Malinda McPherson, the researchers found that DLPFC deactivation was significantly greater when the jazz musicians, who played a small keyboard while in the fMRI scanner, improvised melodies intended to convey the emotions expressed in a “positive” image (a photograph of a woman smiling) than when they aimed to capture the emotions in a “negative” image (a photograph of the same woman in a mildly distressed state).

On the other hand, improvisations targeted at conveying the emotions in the negative image were associated with greater activation of the brain’s reward regions, which reinforce behaviors that lead to pleasurable outcomes, and a greater connectivity of these regions to the DLPFC.

“There’s more deactivation of the DLPFC during happy improvisations, perhaps indicating that people are getting into more of a ‘groove’ or ‘zone,’ but during sad improvisations there’s more recruitment of areas of the brain related to reward. This indicates there may be different mechanisms for why it’s pleasurable to create happy versus sad music,” said McPherson, a classical violist and first-year graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology.

“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 said. “Not that we’re going to answer all the questions, but that we have the right to ask them and to design experiments that try to shed some light on this fascinating human process.”

The research was funded by the Dana Foundation and by the Brain Science Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Co-authors were Frederick S. Barrett, PhD, instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; Monica Lopez-Gonzalez, PhD; and Patpong Jiradejvong, now a data systems analyst at UCSF.

UC San Francisco (UCSF) is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy, a graduate division with nationally renowned programs in basic, biomedical, translational and population sciences, as well as a preeminent biomedical research enterprise and UCSF Health, which includes two top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco, as well as other partner and affiliated hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the Bay Area.