Surrealism, Creativity, and the Prefrontal Cortex
Creativity may require turning off your prefrontal cortex.
Posted Apr 05, 2014
What do these three terms have in common? During my spring break holiday, I attended a lecture at the Honolulu Museum of Art by Dr. Theresa Papanikolas, Curator of European and American Art (lectures can be fun even when you're on vacation!). She discussed Surrealism in photography and one of the first things she presented was André Breton's 1924 definition of the art movement, which was published in the first Surrealist Manifesto (Le Manifeste du Surréalisme):
Surrealism, noun: Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.
As is well known, Breton and his followers considered Freud's psychodynamic theory as the foundation for their movement, because the "real functioning of thought" was presumed to be driven by unconscious drives and motivations. By releasing expression of all control, the Surrealist could reveal the true nature of the human condition. As depicted by painters such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy, Surrealism offered a phantasmagoric view of the world through renderings of dreams and free associations. One method was "automatic" drawing, as shown below in the work by André Masson, in which pen is put to paper without reason or direction.
Neurologists are familiar with the condition of "thought in the absence of all control," as patients with extensive damage to the prefrontal cortex exhibit a failure to inhibit stray thoughts and feelings. Such patients are distractible, lack attentional focus, and are driven by whatever motivates them at the moment (often without "moral preoccupation"). In neuroimaging studies, attention to sensory features or specific goals is dependent upon activity in the prefrontal cortex, particularly the dorsolateral regions of the prefrontal cortex.Theoretical analyses suggest that the prefrontal cortex is involved in "dynamic filtering," "executive control," or "metacognition," terms which imply that this region acts as a supervisor or conductor that orchestrates activity in other brain regions. Without such control, thoughts and feelings are moved by whatever waves of brain activity that may be occuring at the moment. The neurological cases of Phineas Gage and Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th century photographer, show how damage to the orbitofrontal cortex can cause "disinhibition" of emotional responses.
An interesting neuroimaging study of artistic expression suggests that creative moments may require the prefrontal cortex to be shut down. Charles Limb and Allen Braun scanned jazz pianists and assessed brain activity when they were improvising compared to times when they were playing a memorized piece. As shown in the figure below, large regions of the prefrontal cortex were deactivated while improvising compared to playing from memory (blue regions in frontal cortex), as if the freeing of control was necessary for improvisation. The most anterior part of the prefrontal cortex, the frontal polar region, was active during improvisation (yellow region in frontal cortex). Interestingly, this region is associated with the implementation of higher-order goals and might be related to the importance of maintaining a general conceptual point or particular mood of an improvised work.
During creative acts, it may be useful to suppress prefrontal control to some extent and simply be guided by the stray thoughts and feelings of the moment. In fact, creativity may be viewed as the freeing of well-worn tendencies and the uncovering of novel combinations of ideas and emotions. The deactivation of prefrontal filtering may allow creative thoughts to bubble up that otherwise would have been suppressed as irrelevant or inappropriate. Of course, creativity is not commensurate with completely random or disorganized ideas, and the findings by Limb and Braun suggest that certain control, such as those initiated by the frontal polar cortex, is needed to provide some guidance. By this view, the Surrealists strove to enhance their own creative expression by relinquishing executive control and in Star Wars vernacular by letting the force be with them. I wouldn't say that the Surrealists were operating as if they had damage to the prefrontal cortex (though perhaps some might!). However, had they known about the cognitive neuroscience of creativity, the Surrealists may have included in their definition the importance of deactivating the prefrontal cortex when involved in creative expressions.