Creativity Can Flip-Flop From Left Brain to Right Brain

Some jazz musicians use their left brain more during creative improvisations.

Posted Apr 01, 2020

Source: Doggygraph/Shutterstock

If there were a grand prize for the most persistent and pesky neuromyth of all time, the misconception that creativity only occurs in the so-called "right brain" would win. In recent years, countless studies have debunked the myth that creative thinking only occurs in the right cerebral hemisphere. (See here, here, here.)

Nevertheless, a vast number of people continue to mistakenly attribute creativity solely to the right brain and more analytic thinking to the left brain. All too often, students and test-takers are encouraged to pigeonhole themselves as a "left-brain thinker" or "right-brain thinker."

New brain-imaging research (Rosen et al., 2020) from Drexel University sheds light on how the left hemisphere and right hemisphere can both play a role in the creative process. The findings are published in the June 2020 issue of NeuroImage.

David Rosen, who is the co-founder and COO of a music-technology startup called Secret Chord Laboratories, is the first author of this study. John Kounios, who is a professor of psychology and cognitive brain sciences in Drexel's College of Arts and Sciences, is the senior author.

 Drexel University
Brain activity maps showing areas associated with high-creativity performances compared with lower-creativity performances. Each map shows a top view of the head.
Source: Drexel University

For this study, Rosen and Kounios partnered with colleagues in Drexel's Creativity Research Lab to analyze the brains of novice and expert jazz musicians during improvisation using SPM-EEG neuroimaging technology. The goal of this study was to delineate between creative cognition and executive processing in different brain hemispheres during jazz improvisation.

Notably, the researchers found that novice musicians with relatively little improvisation experience relied more on the right hemisphere for creativity while the more experienced "expert" jazz musicians showed more neural activity in the left hemisphere during creative improvisations.

"If creativity is defined in terms of the quality of a product, such as a song, invention, poem, or painting, then the left hemisphere plays a key role," Kounios said in a recent news release. "However, if creativity is understood as a person's ability to deal with novel, unfamiliar situations, as is the case for novice improvisers, then the right hemisphere plays the leading role."

Please note that Kounios' hypothesis is speculative and that more research is needed. In this open-access study, the authors clearly state four noteworthy limitations of their research, along with recommendations for future studies.

In addition to their neuroscience-based empirical evidence, the authors share some anecdotal examples of how some iconic jazz musicians approach improvisation, creativity, and executive control:

As legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis eloquently put it, "I'll play, and tell you what it is later" (Szwed, 2012). Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker stated, "You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail" (Pugatch, 2006, p. 73).

Such statements support the notion that through rigorous training, jazz musicians can learn to inhibit or relax executive-control processes and improvise creatively based on unconscious, associative processes. This frees the performer to consciously think about global aspects of his or her performance, harmonic and melodic priorities, and the development of motifs from previously played material (Johnson-Laird, 2002; Norgaard, 2011). Professional musicians undoubtedly require some degree of executive control; however, the function of this control appears to differ between musicians of greater versus lesser experience (Rosen et al., 2017).

What Role Does Left Brain-Right Brain Play in the Construct of Flow During Creative Cognition?

In addition to cognitive processing and executive control, Rosen et al. examined the psychological construct of 'flow' (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) as a measure of musicians' subjective phenomenological experience while improvising. As they explain:

Increased levels of flow, reported by the musicians after improvising, also increased the perceived quality of the improvisations. This suggests there may be a link between the perceived quality of jazz improvisations and the phenomenological experience of achieving a flow-state during jazz improvisation. This aligns with theoretical models of jazz improvisation, which posit that an individual is performing at his or her peak of arousal and ability when entering a flow state (McPherson and Limb, 2013). Psychological predictors of improvisation quality included greater experience, the phenomenological experience of flow, and jazz being the primary musical genre of the performer. 

Despite these initial findings on flow, the authors chose to "defer a detailed discussion of flow and primary musical genre to a subsequent report." Adding: "The present discussion focuses on the relationship between improvisation quality and brain activity as mediated by experience."

Source: ElisaRiva/Pixabay

Along this line, the authors sum up one of the most interesting aspects of their report: "As musicians gain experience through additional performances, they automatize key processes involved in improvisation resulting in a shift from right-hemisphere to left-hemisphere activity. According to this view, there are two forms of creative cognition: one for comparatively novel situations and one that applies well-learned routines to familiar situations."

The researchers conclude that there may be a dual process of creativity during jazz improvisations that is associated with differences between right brain-left brain hemispheric activity based on a musician's level of expertise. Contrary to popular belief, the latest research suggests that the left brain and right bran can both play a significant role in creativity and creative cognition.


David S. Rosen, Yongtaek Oh, Brian Erickson, Fengqing (Zoe) Zhang, Youngmoo E. Kim, John Kounios. “Dual-Process Contributions to Creativity in Jazz Improvisations: An SPM-EEG Study.” NeuroImage (First published online: February 28, 2020) DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116632