Creativity and the Brain

What differentiates creative thinking from the more idle variety?

The art of Carmen Einfinger is exuberant. Its brilliant colors and freedom of line convey complex emotions but also reflect the most joyful aspects of her childhood in Brazil — the sun, the sea, the fruits and lush flowers, the freedom of climbing trees barefoot.

For Einfinger, creating art is a journey that eventually brings her to a place akin to bliss.

"When I'm in that space I become incredibly connected with life," she said. "It's as if you're touching the world. You feel elated."

It's an exceptionally fulfilling state, one she's built her life around. But to get there, Einfinger must often cross the most treacherous emotional landscapes of her past, one that includes five years in a São Paulo orphanage.

This journey from personal pain into the flow state where creativity takes place is common to many artists, writers and musicians. And that remarkable alchemy is one of the great mysteries of the creative process — a mystery that science has just begun to probe.

Dr. Charles Limb, Chief of Otology, Neurotology and Skull Base Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, was one of the first scientists to examine what happens in the brain during creativity.

He devised an fMRI study to monitor the brains of professional jazz musicians as they transitioned from playing a known piece of music into freely creative improvisation.

The scans showed two remarkable changes in the brain. This area at the very front of the brain (prefrontal cortex) where self-monitoring and self-criticism take place was suppressed. And the area just behind that (medial prefrontal cortex), which deals in part with memory and emotion, was activated.

For artists — and for any others who'd like to enrich their lives with creativity — one key question the study raised was, how do you suppress your inner critic so you can enter the creative flow space?

The scientific answer, like the punch line of that old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall, appears to be practice, practice, practice.

That's what another study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, discovered. Researchers found that the prefrontal cortex quiets down in direct proportion to an artist's level of expertise. In other words, the more you've mastered your craft, the more you can let go and soar.

That release of self-censorship and the accompanying activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, with its connection to personal memory, may also shed some light on the "darker side" of creative freedom (think of the so-called "tortured artist"). Difficult emotions are often part of the process.

"When you're an artist, a lot comes from your unconscious, and in your unconscious there can be a lot of pain," said Einfinger. "That's what takes guts."

Although he's an accomplished doctor, Limb's own personal experience as a musician also goes a long way toward explaining why art can be one the most fulfilling aspects of life.

"I find that I understood almost every human experience — love, pain, suffering, happiness, joy, ecstasy — better because of music," he said. "I never felt that anything came closer than music to beautifying and clarifying the world for me."