Understanding the Link Between Creativity and Attention

Self expression vs self monitoring

When we experience creative flow our mind fills with original associations — one idea leads to the next almost effortlessly. Our behaviors change, too. We know we are in that mode because we remember where we put our keys, that package we wanted to drop off, and Monday morning's traffic doesn't bother us as much.

Its opposite is easy to detect — we move drone-like in autopilots through the morning and wonder whatever happened in between home and work. In that mode, we do not even marvel at getting there in one piece, given how mindless we were.

Attention plays a role in fostering creativity and enhancing mindfulness, which in turn creates well-being. 

In Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher says much of the quality of our lives depends on what we choose to pay attention to. She says, “no one knows exactly what happens inside your head during the creative process.” But when we pay rapt attention to something, we feel different that our everyday experience.

We feel both deeply engaged and free-flowing at the same time. She says, this association of focusing and freedom “suggests that at such moments our brain releases its breaks, allowing the mind to let loose.” Charles Limb, a doctor and musician, researches the way musical creativity works in the brain. To find out how the brain works during musical improvisation he put jazz musicians in an fMRI.

Limb wondered how it is possible for the brain to generate the information necessary to improvise entire jazz concerts.  That was question number one. He says:

I've always — just as a listener, as just a fan — I listen to that, and I'm just astounded. I think — how can this possibly be? How can the brain generate that much information, that much music, spontaneously? So I set out with this concept, scientifically, that artistic creativity, it's magical, but it's not magic, meaning that it's a product of the brain. There's not too many brain-dead people creating art.

And so with this notion that artistic creativity is in fact a neurological product, I took this thesis that we could study it just like we study any other complex neurological process. And I think there's some sub-questions there that I put there. Is it truly possible to study creativity scientifically? I think that's a good question. And I'll tell you that most scientific studies of music, they're very dense, and when you actually go through them, it's very hard to recognize the music in it. In fact, they seem to be very unmusical entirely and to miss the whole point of the music.

Which generates a second question:

Why should scientists study creativity? Maybe we're not the right people to do it. Well it may be, but I will say that, from a scientific perspective — we talked a lot about innovation today — the science of innovation, how much we understand about how the brain is able to innovate is in its infancy, and truly, we know very little about how we are able to be creative. And so I think that we're going to see over the next 10, 20, 30 years a real science of creativity that's burgeoning and is going to flourish. Because we now have new methods that can enable us to take this process of something like this, complex jazz improvisation, and study it rigorously. And so it gets down to the brain. And so all of us have this remarkable brain, which is poorly understood to say the least.

To which we may still have more questions than answers. However, Limb made an interesting observation as he set to highlight the areas of the brain that get activated during improvisation through blood flow. More blood equals more activity. They tested what happened to the brain in two situations — when playing something memorized, and when playing an improvisation. What they found, says Gallagher:

When they improvised on their own — the keystone of all kinds of creativity — the musicians' brains went int a “disassociated frontal activity state,” a.k.a. “being in the zone.” Neurological activity associated with self-monitoring and inhibition decreased, which increased their ability to process new stimuli and ideas.

When they played a standard tune, however, the musicians' brains didn't respond in this way. Limb suspects that other forms of improvisation, even conversation, involve the same type of brain activity as playing jazz and plans to investigate that possibility with subjects who aren't artists.

The different areas of the brain that activate when doing improvisation are not just jazz areas of the brain, they do other things [see image above]. Says Limb:

They do a whole host of things that have to do with self-reflection, introspection, working memory and so forth. Really, consciousness is seated in the frontal lobe. But we have this combination of an area that's thought to be involved in self-monitoring, turning off, and this area that's thought to be autobiographical, or self-expressive, turning on.

And we think, at least in this preliminary — it's one study; it's probably wrong, but it's one study — we think that at least a reasonable hypothesis is that, to be creative, you have to have this weird dissociation in your frontal lobe. One area turns on, and a big area shuts off, so that you're not inhibited, so that you're willing to make mistakes, so that you're not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses.

Now a lot of people know that music is not always a solo activity — sometimes it's done communicatively. And so the next question was: What happens when musicians are trading back and forth, something called "trading fours," which is something they do normally in a jazz experiment? So this is a twelve-bar blues. And I've broken it down into four-bar groups here, so you would know how you would trade. Now what we did was we brought a musician into the scanner — same way — had them memorize this melody and then had another musician out in the control room trading back and forth interactively.

Showing the preliminary data from this one study, the area of expressive communication lights up. This builds on the idea that music is a language and when two musicians are playing together, they are in fact exchanging communication back and forth.

The one area of the brain turns on and the other shuts off when creativity is engaged. It's a working hypothesis and we do improvise in our daily work and actions. Improvisation requires that we are present to a situation to respond to it, which creates additional benefits for mindful behavior.

To see how they fit musicians in brain scans and find out what the hardest parts were, and hear Limb rap watch the video of Charles Limb talk below.


 “The term mindfulness wouldn't be necessary,” says Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, “if most people didn't have such an impoverished, static understanding of what 'paying attention' means.”