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Artistic creativity and the brain

Is art subject to frontal cortex censorship?

I wrote a blog in May in which I discussed the improvisations of the jazz pianist, Tord Gustavsen. In it, I put forward the view that great artistic achievements must be free of all censorship, and above all self-censorship which, I imagined, may possibly be imposed by activity in the frontal lobes of the brain. In this context, I was very interested to read about an imaginative experiment in a recent paper by Charles Limb and Allen Braun, published in PLoS One.

They studied the activity in the brain of professional jazz pianists while they (the pianists) were improvising. There is much of interest in this paper, but here I concentrate on one result which I found especially exciting in view of what I said in my earlier blog. Limb and Braun found that there was extensive de-activation in the frontal cortex as well as in those areas of the brain that are thought to regulate emotions. The authors write that the frontal areas that were de-activated in their study are thought to be important for the conscious monitoring, evaluation and correction of behaviour:

“The [frontal cortex] may be involved in assessing whether such behaviors conform to social demands, exerting inhibitory control over inappropriate or maladaptive performance”

And there you have it!

Any artistic achievement that is tailored to conform to social demands rather than to the real, uninhibited, feelings of its creator, is destined not to reach the heights of achievement, or even fail. It is only when an artist is disinhibited that he or she can reach the heights of artistic achievement.

This is perhaps what Wagner and Schopenhauer meant when they said, in a somewhat clumsy way, that an artistic work must “flow from the sub-conscious”, which I interpret to mean without self-censorship. This is perhaps what Proust also meant when he wrote in his Contre Sainte Beuve, “Every day, I become more aware that it is only outside [intelligence] that the [artist] can attain something of himself and the only material of art” (see my earlier blog).

It is at any rate wonderful to have in this recent work a neurological insight into a prized characteristic of all art, but especially of jazz and dancing.

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About the Author
Creativity and the Brain

Semir Zeki is a professor of neuroesthetics at University College London.