Neuro-activation/de-activation Recipe for Creativity?

by Jeff King, Executive Director
Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching and Learning
University of Central Oklahoma

Will it ever be possible to induce creativity?

Maybe some researchers investigating underlying processes and structures of creativity, whether neurological (the “wetware”), electro- or physio-mechanical (the “hardware”), or algorithm-ical (the “software”), seek the holy grail of a recipe that will allow the dependable production of a creative state in humans (and eventually, post-singularity, in machine intelligence).

Limb and Braun (2008) reported findings of a functional magnetic imaging research study involving jazz musicians that sought to define which areas of the brain are active or inactive (relatively speaking) while a jazz pianist is improvising. Their findings jibe with results of other brain imaging studies of humans being creative. (For example, research on rappers during their improvisatory creations melding words to rhythm.)

If it were possible to replicate the neural activation patterns that seem to characterize certain kinds of creativity, would that mean creative output would be guaranteed?

Limb and Braun’s findings intrigue because they give clues to what may be markers of a creative state based on how areas of the brain operate together and on what is generally thought to be the result of activation/de-activation patterns connected to the various regions of the brain’s physical structure. Specifically, their findings seem to indicate there is a quieting of activity in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex. This quieting tamps down on some of the rule-based, logical-rational reasoning that would otherwise occur and which is responsible in many ways for self-control and good decision-making.

That’s a grossly oversimplified crystallization of innumerable nuances in how brains work. Too, there is the individual’s background experience and large number of idiosyncratic response patterns that factor into the mix from which Limb and Braun have tried to tease out some generalizations about the kind of creativity involved in jazz improvisation. Nonetheless, this transient hypofrontality (meaning, temporary suppression of certain prefrontal cortex activity usually indicating the person’s self-regulation of impulse is lessened) might offer a strong clue about getting into a creative state for musical improvisation and perhaps for other kinds of creative tasks, too:

Taken together, the consistency of findings reported here suggests that the dissociation of activity in medial and lateral prefrontal cortices is attributable to the experimentally constant feature of improvisation and may be a defining characteristic of spontaneous musical creativity. (Limb & Braun, 2008)

So how do you train yourself to make your brain behave in this way when you undertake what you hope will produce creative results?

It would, after all, be delightful to don a brainwave-inducing hat, set the controls to tamp down activity in your dorsolateral and lateral orbital prefrontal cortex regions, and happily anticipate creative solutions and constructs conjured by your creativity-primed brain.

Maybe that will be possible in some science-fictional future. Limb and Braun’s research did not delve, however, into the processes that these jazz musicians employed to create the brain activation patterns that were markers for creativity — it only attempted to define the brain patterns in place when creative activity was occurring.

An intriguing speculation presented by Limb and Braun, though, is that meditation, hypnosis, daydreaming, and even rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep (i.e., dreaming) can create an altered state of consciousness during which free-form associations occur and which also produce similar neuro-patterns of lessened prefrontal cortex activity.

At the risk of yet more oversimplification, this and other research at least hints that one of the hallmarks of certain kinds of creativity is an altered conscious state which removes some of the cognitive shackles we have adopted because they temper otherwise impulsive thought and action that could lead to bad, even dangerous, results.

The trick is to turn loose the muse at the appropriate time.

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. Available:


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