The Neuroscience of Creativity

I just returned from speaking at a workshop hosted by the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. I know everyone loves to bash government bureaucracy, but the NSF is a quality organization and I’m always impressed with everything they do. This workshop was no different, with the title “Art, Creativity, and Learning”. The mission our group of experts faced: to prepare a list of important research questions for the future, and to advise the NSF on what types of research should be funded in the next few years.

The event was organized by Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco, and neuroscience research was a constant theme–what does the brain look like when it’s being creative?  Or when it’s listening to music?  Or looking at a painting?  The other constant theme was, when we participate in the arts or in creative pursuits, do we learn things that can make us smarter in general?  For example, everyone seems to believe that playing music makes you better at math.  But, surprisingly, there’s no solid evidence that’s true.  We proposed several research projects that could help us to understand what’s uniquely valuable about the arts.

For me, the high points of the conference were presentations by Ellen WInner of Boston College, perhaps the leading scholar asking questions about the arts, development, and learning; and Dan Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of the best seller This is Your Brain on Music.

I wish I could report some surprising new answers, but our goal was to ask the big unanswered questions, and we did a good job of that: Does participating in the arts give you any increase in general mental ability that transfers to others domains?  If you use dance, music, or painting in math or science class, does it help people learn math or science better?  (This is a common belief that has no solid research support.)  I personally love the arts and I want them to remain in the curriculum.  But, as a scientist, I want to be able to argue for the arts using solid data and research findings, not just wishful thinking.

7 thoughts on “The Neuroscience of Creativity

  1. I, too, love the arts and believe both the creation and appreciation of artistic creations are a fundamental part of what makes us human beings. However, I’m conflicted about the idea of conducting systematic studies of either the creative process or the underlying neural representations of the sensory and affective components of experiencing artistic works. As a behavioral neuroscientist, I am and always have been fascinated by the complexity of the animal brain and the myriad behaviors/abilities/capacities that it produces and that fascination has resulted in a career of trying to explain how it works. But how do you study abstraction? How do you study something that, at it’s very essence, can mean so many different things to so many different people? And maybe more importantly, do we even want to know? I guess what I’m trying to get at is that, as a scientist I believe that every piece of information we can gather about the human brain/mind will ultimately result in a more complete understanding of who we are but, as a human being, I’m not so sure I want something explained that is such a great source of mystery and surprise. Beauty, sadness, violence, awe, nostalgia and everything in between can be and has been elicited through works of art…I just can’t bring myself to want to know how. I must admit, though….I wouldn’t be able to resist reading the research about it. A hazard of the trade, I guess.

  2. I share your hesitation…but for a different reason: “art” and “creativity” have different meanings in different cultures. It’s been exceedingly difficult for scholars to agree on a set of unique features that define “art” in contrast with any other products of human activity. Yet when we talk about neuroscience, we are talking about universal properties of human brains.

    We don’t even need to go to other cultures. Take an example just in the United States: A lot of discussion at our conference was about Brahms, Bach, Picasso, Matisse…the “high art” of the European classical tradition. But if we’re talking about general brain processes, then surely the same parts of the brain are active when we listen to bluegrass, Steely Dan, or Snoop Dog. And when it comes to visual images, the same parts of the brain are probably active in viewing a painting by Picasso or a bus stop poster advertising the next Monster Truck rally.

    So if we’re looking for the brain bases of a unique subset of visual and musical perception that we call “artistic experience”, we need to be focusing on what is held in common across all of these experiences. And that is an immense challenge.

  3. Would you please clarify a statement of yours? You wrote: “I personally love the arts and I want them to remain in the curriculum. But, as a scientist, I want to be able to argue for the arts using solid data and research findings, not just wishful thinking.” With that statement and what you wrote earlier, are you saying that in order for the arts to remain in the curriculum there must be an increased general mental ability that is directly transferable to math and science or some other subject? I understand that we teach subjects that have relevance to the so-called real world; that when I do corporate training I need to connect the learnings do their jobs.
    If music sparks part of my brain that makes me dance around my home and smile, isn’t that enough proof of its value? That break and improved attitude does also help me do the more mundane parts of my job, although I don’t feel as if it made me ‘smarter’ in dealing with them.

  4. You’re right that I was unclear! And you’re right, you could argue to keep the arts in the curriculum because there are important personal and social benefits to learning about the arts. But unfortunately, that argument hasn’t always been convincing lately to the “back to basics” crowd. So I was referring to those people who argue that we need the arts because arts education will result in smarter and more creative scientists or mathematicians. They would like to argue that, even if your primary concern is math or literacy, you still should be supporting the arts because of the transferable benefits. I’d like to have solid data to support that argument.

  5. Got it. Thanks for the clarification. I know that, unfortunately, personal and social benefits have not been convincing arguments. In fairness, I don’t know that there has been hard data to support that position either.

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