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The Creative Brain

Is There a Creativity Module in the Brain?

Both hemispheres are important for creativity, according to recent research, but the adventure lies beyond

Where does creativity come from? Scientists have been researching that in recent decades. Here’s a recent finding:

A new brain-imaging study has studied the brain activity of jazz guitarists during improvisation to show that creativity is, in fact, driven primarily by the right hemisphere in musicians who are comparatively inexperienced at improvisation. However, musicians who are highly experienced at improvisation rely primarily on their left hemisphere…

“If creativity is defined in terms of the quality of a product, such as a song, invention, poem or painting, then the left hemisphere plays a key role,” said Kounios. “However, if creativity is understood as a person’s ability to deal with novel, unfamiliar situations, as is the case for novice improvisers, then the right hemisphere plays the leading role.”

Drexel University, “Where in the brain does creativity come from? Evidence from jazz musicians” at ScienceDaily

It appears that both hemispheres are important for creativity. The paper is available to the public.

But once we get past that, where are we in understanding the brain’s relationship to creativity? The 1990s were the Decade of the Brain. Study of the brain was supposed to explain everything about the mind. But then came the existential crisis:

Neuroscientists have made considerable progress toward understanding brain architecture and aspects of brain function. We can identify brain regions that respond to the environment, activate our senses, generate movements and emotions. But we don’t know how different parts of the brain interact with and depend on each other. We don’t understand how their interactions contribute to behavior, perception, or memory. Technology has made it easy for us to gather behemoth datasets, but I’m not sure understanding the brain has kept pace with the size of the datasets.

Grigori Guitchounts, “An Existential Crisis in Neuroscience” at Nautilus

Studying the brain is valuable in itself but may not help us understand how to be more creative in what we do. In short, a great deal of data doesn’t explain creativity.

Some have started to examine different possibilities: One of them is science writer John Horgan. Writing in Scientific American, he asked recently if there was some way that creativity enables us to access a realm beyond ourselves (the transpersonal):

I’m still mulling over a meeting I attended last month at Esalen, the spiritual retreat center, on “exceptional experiences” that challenge conventional science. More specifically, I’m mulling over imagination. What generates it, and what are its limits, if any? Is it sometimes more akin to revelation than invention?

Imagination is arguably the quintessential human trait. Our capacity to imagine the consequences of our choices gives us free will. Lacking imagination, we’d lack art, science, mathematics, technology and social progress, which comes about only after we imagine a better world.

John Horgan, “Do We Possess a Transpersonal Imagination?” at Scientific American (January 16, 2020)

Horgan couldn’t really go along with the idea of a transpersonal imagination proposed at the Esalen meeting. Never mind, as William Shakespeare, a genuine expert in the field, said,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

– A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1

But how, Will? How?

What we are really learning is that minute mapping of the brain is not likely to give us a complete explanation of creativity. Let alone a means of control. Answers, when they appear, lie in the immaterial world of the mind. Shakespeare knew that. Creativity is always an adventure into unknown territory.

Further reading: Creativity does not follow computational rules


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Is There a Creativity Module in the Brain?