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Creativity, Emotions, and the Brain

New research finds different patterns of brain activity when improvising musicians are expressing happy feelings, as opposed to sad ones.
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(Photo: Howard Ignatius/Flickr)

(Photo: Howard Ignatius/Flickr)

Music can be thought of as the language of emotions. Complex, contradictory feelings that are nearly impossible to put into words can be eloquently expressed on the piano.

But what was going on in Beethoven's brain as he channeled his anxiety and determination into symphonies and sonatas? According to a first-of-its-kind study, the answer apparently depends on whether he was expressing positive or negative emotions.

An experiment in which professional jazz musicians had their brains scanned as they improvised at the keyboard found different patterns of brain activation, depending on the specific feeling they were trying to convey.

"It is plausible that the pleasure or satisfaction derived from happy and sad music may be mediated through different neurobiological systems," writes a research team led by Malinda McPherson of the Harvard-MIT Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology, and Charles Limb of the University of California–San Francisco. (Outside the lab, she's a violist, and he's a jazz musician.)

"The impulse to create emotionally expressive music may have a basic neural origin."

Their study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, provides evidence of how emotion impacts creativity, and offers a plausible theory as to what motivates us to make music.

The experiment, conducted at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, featured 12 professional jazz pianists whose brains were scanned as they improvised music on a keyboard. As they did so, they viewed a series of photographs of the same woman with three different expressions on her face: happy, sad, and ambiguous. They were instructed to respond, musically, to each new image.

"Improvisation was unrestricted melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically," the researchers note, "but the subjects were instructed to play one note at a time, using their right hand."

The first, and least surprising, finding: Seventy-one percent of the "positive improvisations" were in a major key, compared with 31 percent of the those expressing negative emotions, and 46 percent of those expressing ambiguous feelings.

More interesting: "Higher note densities were used to express positive emotions, and lower note densities were used to express negative and ambiguous emotions." The average duration and range of the improvisations also varied by the type of feeling being expressed.

The study's key finding, however, was that the process of conveying positive and negative emotions through music produced different patterns of brain activity.

Previous studies have shown that improvising music has led to deactivation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in such functions as planning, working memory, and abstract reasoning. This temporary shut-down of extraneous activity reflects the fact that "creativity can induce a state of total immersion often referred to as a flow state."

McPherson and Limb found that this deactivation "was much more pronounced during positive improvisation" than its negative or ambiguous counterparts, suggesting that improvising on happy emotions induces a deeper state of flow.

In contrast, the pattern of brain activity found while the players improvised on sad emotions suggests this type of music-making "may be more clearly linked to a stronger visceral experience, and greater activity in reward processing areas of the brain."

In other words, at least within jazz improvisation, "certain emotional states may open musicians to deeper flow states, or more robust stimulation of reward centers," depending upon the emotional content of the music.

Importantly, the researchers found "few significant differences between neural activity in response to any of the visual cues" when they were simply observed. Rather, these differences appear to be the direct result of "creative expression of emotion through music."

"In summary, this study shows that the impulse to create emotionally expressive music may have a basic neural origin," the researchers write. If their findings are confirmed, they will help explain "the human urge to express emotions through art."

Their findings make evolutionary sense. As Aristotle pointed out, music and drama can produce catharsis—an important purging of emotions—in audiences as well as artists. This research suggests the brains of such creators have evolved to enjoy certain internal rewards when they perform this vital function.

A nice system, when you think about it. But they still deserve to get paid.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.