Your Brain on Creativity

To Get Your Creative Juices Flowing, Your Inner Critic Must Hush

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 29, 2008

Feb. 29, 2008 -- For creativity to have a chance, the brain needs to get out of its own way and go with the flow.

That's the bottom line from a new study on creativity.

The study included six full-time professional jazz musicians. They got their brains scanned while playing a scale or a memorized jazz piece exactly as written and again when they were free to improvise, riffing off the assigned music.

When they improvised, the brain's dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions were far less active -- and another brain area, the medial prefrontal cortex, was more active.

The brain regions that were quiet during improvisation are involved in consciously monitoring, evaluating, and correcting behaviors, write the researchers.

In contrast, the medial prefrontal cortex allows self-expression, in this case in the form of jazz improvisation, according to the study.

But creativity isn't just about self-expression. The brain's sensory regions were more active during improvisation.

"It's almost as if the brain ramps up its sensorimotor processing in order to be in a creative state," researcher Charles Limb, MD, says in a news release.

"One important thing we can conclude from this study is that there is no single creative area of the brain -- no focal activation of a single area," says Allen Braun, MD, in the news release. "You see a strong and consistent pattern of activity throughout the brain that enables creativity."

Limb, who wrote the jazz piece that the musicians memorized, worked on the study while he was a research fellow with the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). He's now an otolaryngologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a faculty member at Johns Hopkins' Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Braun, who worked with Limb on the study, is the chief of the language section in the NIDCD's intramural research division.