How Emotions Influence Creative Minds

January 5, 2016

Music, movies, poetry, and other art forms often evoke strong feelings. A new brain scan study explores how emotion influences the creative process by focusing exclusively on one type of artist: jazz pianists. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers showed that feeling happy, sad, or neutral will influence which parts of the brain’s creativity network light up… and to what extent.

“Emotion and creativity are tightly linked,” wrote the authors of the study, adding “the neural mechanisms underlying creativity may depend on emotional state.” While various researchers have studied brain cell activity during creative tasks, none have directly addressed emotional expression during jazz improvisation. Jazz in particular is extremely flexible, enabling musicians to incorporate a variety of musical features, including tone and rhythm, to express an emotion.

For the new study, the research team used fMRI technology to explore what occurs in the brain during piano improvisations inspired by specific emotional cues. Specifically, the team wanted to identify whether or not a musician’s specific emotional motivation would influence which brain systems were involved in her or his creative process.

To accomplish this, the research team showed 12 professional jazz pianists three separate photographs representing a positive, negative, or ambiguous emotion and asked them to improvise separate musical compositions for each. For the positive photo, a woman smiles; for the negative, the same woman appears distressed; for the ambiguous image, she shows no clear feeling.

Within the brain scanner, the pianists improvised music on a keyboard as an interpretation of her emotion in each photo. Meanwhile, the research team, which was led by Dr. Charles Limb, a surgeon and an accomplished jazz saxophonist, observed the activity occurring in each musician’s brain.

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