In a recent University of California, San Francisco study involving jazz pianists, according to the public release document associated with the research, neuroscientists have concluded that “the workings of neural circuits associated with creativity are significantly altered when artists are actively attempting to express emotions.”
The public release, entitled “Mind of Blue: Conveying Emotion Affects Brain’s Creativity Network,” reminds us that during the act of improvisation, a brain region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is “involved in planning and monitoring behavior” is deactivated, allowing the musician to enter into a “flow state” that artists enter to “free up creative impulses.”
The new study found that this deactivation “was significantly greater when the jazz musicians, who played a small keyboard while in the fMRI scanner, improvised melodies intended to convey the emotion 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 expressing the emotion 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.”
Malinda McPherson, an author of the study, writes that there is 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 [which would indicate] there may be different mechanisms for why it’s pleasurable to create happy versus sad music.”
Senior research author Charles Limb, M.D. concludes that “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. 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 bottom line,” says Dr. Limb, “is that emotion matters.”
To read the complete public release of the study, click here.
A film from 1958 of Benny Goodman playing “Sometimes I’m Happy”