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The Neural Origins of Music Creativity

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We already know that intensive music training produces many observable changes in the structure and function of the brain: the cortex in brain areas needed for playing a musical instrument becomes thicker, and brain functions related to the processing of sounds become heightened. As Oliver Sachs wrote in Musicophilia, “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician - but they would recognize the brain of a professional musician without moment’s hesitation.”

But what about musical creativity? What kind of brains might composer geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, or Prince have had? What kind of neural networks are needed to give rise to phenomenal pieces of music that are able to move people across generations, even centuries?

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The results have interesting implications. Firstly, they revealed that the amount of musically creative behaviors the participants reported to engage in correlated with the structure of regions associated with motor performance, sound processing as well as emotion. All of these are brain structures that are routinely reported to be different in musicians when compared to non-musicians. They reflect the requirements of musical performance and music training: good motor skills, a good ear, and skills for expressing and understanding the emotions conveyed by music.

Another intriguing finding in the study was the significant correlation between musical creativity and the activity of the brain regions associated with the so-called default mode network. The default mode network is a distributed set of frontal, temporal, parietal and cingulate regions that has previously been shown to be active when subjects are not engaged in any particular task (hence the name) and just let their mind wander. 

Many of us have probably experienced the creativity-boosting effects of the activity of the default mode network: the best solutions to a problem you have been working hard on, for hours, may pop into your mind only when you manage to let go of your focus and take a break to let your mind rest. This may also explain why many individuals working in creative fields make sure to keep a notebook on hand – it is very possible you won’t be at your desk or on a computer, but rather somewhere relaxing when the best ideas come to mind! This finding may also carry advice for individuals who wish to come up with more creative solutions in their work. In addition to hard work and focus, the mind needs rest to provide the best insight.

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All in all, the results of the study start to provide insights into the musically creative brain. It is tuned for good motor skills, fine-grained hearing, and enhanced emotion processing. Additionally, the musically creative brain is trained for letting go of control once a while to allow the weaker signals of creative insight to surface. Maybe an important addition should be made to the recipe of creative success: it’s not only about the combination of inspiration and perspiration, but also a pinch of procrastination is needed.

WRITTEN BY KETKI KARANAM

 

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REFERENCES:

1. Sacks, O. (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  doi: 10.1056/NEJMbkrev59472

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2. Kanai, R., & Rees, G. (2011). The structural basis of inter-individual differences in human behaviour and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci, 12(4), 231–242. doi:10.1038/nrn3000

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3. Bashwiner, D. M., Wertz, C. J., Flores, R. A., & Jung, R. E. (2016). Musical Creativity “Revealed” in Brain Structure: Interplay between Motor, Default Mode, and Limbic Networks. Scientific Reports, 6, 20482. doi:10.1038/srep20482

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4. Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE, 3(2), e1679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679