In a popular view, creativity is a product of the right hemisphere of the brain — innovative humans are considered “right brain thinkers” while “left brain thinkers” are thought to be analytical and logical.
Neurologists skeptical of this idea argued that there was insufficient evidence to support this idea and that a skill as complex as human creativity depends on both hemispheres.
A new brain imaging study from Drexel University’s Creativity Research Laboratory sheds light on this controversy by examining the brain activity of jazz musicians during improvisation.
The Relationship Between Experience and Thinking Process
This study, recently published in NeuroImage magazine, showed that creativity depends on the right hemisphere when inexperienced musicians are improvising.
On the other hand, the left hemisphere is more active when experienced musicians are improvising. This indicates that creativity is “right brain ability” when faced with a situation that a person does not recognize, but that creativity takes advantage of well-learned left hemisphere routines if the person is experienced.
Given the change in brain activity based on experience, this research can contribute to people being creative in their fields and developing new methods.
For example, when a person is an expert, his performance is primarily produced by automated processes that are difficult for the person to consciously change, unaware of other behaviors.
In contrast, novices’ performances tend to be conscious and in control. Accordingly, they can make more changes in their behavior according to the instructions given by an educator or expert.
Records of brain activity can reveal the point at which an artist tends to release conscious control and rely on unconscious, well-established routine behaviors. Leaving conscious control early can cause the artist to get stuck in bad habits or non-optimal techniques.
The researchers recorded high-intensity electroencephalograms (EEGs) from 32 jazz musicians, some highly experienced and some less experienced. Each musician improvised six jazz songs, accompanied by programmed drums, bass, and piano.
The 192 jazz improvisations recorded later (32 participants — six jazz songs per participant) were then played to four jazz music experts and teachers to rate each song in terms of creativity and other qualities.
The researchers compared the EEGs recorded during high-scoring performances with EEGs recorded during performances that were deemed less creative.
For higher scoring performances compared to less creative performances, there was more activity in the posterior left hemisphere of the brain; For performances with lower scores there was more activity in the right hemisphere, mostly in the frontal areas.
This new study examined brain areas that support creative musical improvisation for highly experienced musicians and less experienced colleagues, and discussed the roles of left and right hemispheres in creativity. Moreover, it raises such an important issue as the definition and interpretation of creativity.