Creative Listening: How Music Can Boost Your Creativity

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

When you think of “creativity,” you might conjure up images of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or of a writer spending long hours agonizing over her next novel, hoping to be the next Joyce Carol Oates. While these are certainly monumentally important creative endeavors, this knee-jerk reaction suggests our rather limited concept of creativity. At its core, creativity confers the ability to visualize innovative solutions to problems — whether this problem is solving world hunger or inventing a surprising plot twist for that novel. In fact, a survey conducted by IBM found that the majority of the 1,500-plus CEOs believed that creativity is the most important factor in “successfully navigating an [increasingly] complex world.”

It is imperative that we work collectively to strengthen our own imagination muscles if we are to mitigate the issues posed by modern society. “But how?” you are probably asking. “How can I will myself to be creative?” According to preeminent researchers on all things creative, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, creativity can’t be taught, per se. But don’t despair — this isn’t the end of the story.

In their Psychology Today series, “Imagine That!” they elaborate: “Creativity is not simply a set of skills. Creativity is not simply familiarity with a set of behaviors or facility with a set of pre-fab strategies. Creativity is not simply a body of knowledge. Creativity only manifests when a person with the right sets of skills and knowledge invents or finds an appropriate problem that cannot be solved using any existing approach, but which is amenable to solution by that person’s unique set of experiences.”

In other words, creativity requires both the appropriate context and a well-developed toolbox. Many people believe that creativity is a spontaneous phenomenonthat we have no power over — it comes and goes of its own volition. Some of us writers even fear the day will come when it’s gone for good. However, the current school of thought in neuroscience disagrees with this notion. According to Dr. Monica Lopez-Gonzalez: “The creative cognition approach is the current model dominating the neuroscientific study of creative thinking. According to this approach, creativity is far from a magical event of unexpected random inspiration. Instead, it is a mental occurrence that results from the application of ordinary cognitive processes.”

Furthermore, brain-imaging studies have discovered that creativity activates a vast array of brain structures. Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director at the Imagination Institute, explains: “Creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain. Instead, the entire creative process — from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification — consists of many interacting cognitive processes and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.”

He goes on to differentiate between the three networks of the brain: the executive attention network (involved with intense concentration and focus); the default (or imagination) network (associated with “mental simulations” and social cognition); and the salience network (essentially the arbiter of the other two networks, in that it chooses the most salient stimuli and sends them to the appropriate network). When you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic. It’s good to reduce activation of the executive attention network (a bit, but not completely) and increase activation of the imagination and salience networks.

Indeed, recent research on jazz musicians and rappers engaging in creative improvisation suggests that’s precisely what is happening in the brain while in a flow state. It is this last point that we will focus on; elaborating on the notion that playing as well as listening to music can galvanize creativity, both among professionals and amateurs, and those within and outside of the sphere of music as well.

Several studies have looked at what unfolds in the brain when an experienced jazz musician plays a well-learned piece of music, versus when they are improvising. Jessica Gross discusses research conducted by Parag Chordia: “It appears that when the musicians improvised, certain areas of their brains were actually muted. That is, rather than requiring more activity across the brain, a highly creative state benefits from fewer active areas, so that more-disparate regions can communicate with each other and create unexpected new insights.” Charles Limb, a respected surgeon as well as a musician, also pioneered research on the subject, conducting similar studies with jazz musicians.

He tells NPR’s Susan Stamberg: “When we looked at their brain activity, we found a really characteristic pattern and when they were improvising, their brain went into this state. We call it a dissociated frontal activity state … I think the brain really alters itself into this kind of creative mind frame where its purpose at that moment is to generate novelty and to decrease inhibition.”

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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