This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


A link between creativity and sadness?

Ever wonder why your aspirations at becoming a world-renowned poet seem to be the strongest when you're in the middle of a depressive phase in life?  While artistic genius and personal malaise have often been linked in history (one only needs to google "famous artist" to find a wide range of deranged and depressed creative masters), does this kind of effect carry on into us normal folk as well?

Here is an article by Jonah Lehr tackling this very issue.  Basically, he looks at an emerging body of scientific literature that suggests that depression not only bums us out, it also makes us more creative and sharpens some of our skills.

The studies used different methods to alter their participants' moods, employing things like gloomy music, testing on rainy days, and inducing feelings of negativity and self-doubt.  They then tested them on a number of different activities designed to assess attention, memory, and creativity.  What they found was that being in a depressed state tends to enhance certain aspects of our cognition, making us pay more attention to certain kinds of details and fixate on certain tasks more heavily.

Granted, these studies have a long ways to go before we can draw a strong causal link between being depressed and having an increased level of creativity.  For one, who know how effective their methods are at actually changing participants' moods.  However, I can't say that I'm surprised - when it comes to unleashing my own artistic potential, it seems that there's nothing like a good old-fashioned breakup.

via Wired Magazine


Notes in the Brain

One of the topics that I've been interested in for a long time is creativity and where it is represented in the brain.  Unfortunately, most research tends to focus on other aspects of cognition, since it's often tough to relate the study of creativity to a tangible benefit to society (or at least that's what most would have you think), but a recent article interviewed one researcher that is challenging that belief.

Charles Limb is a doctor-researcher at John Hopkins University.  He is also a saxophonist, pianist, and bassist.  This unique combination of talents has left him with a burning interest in the nature of creativity and spontaneity, two qualities that are inherent to any musical piece.

When he isn't performing cochlear implants, Dr. Limb has an fMRI lab that uses brain imaging to examine what exactly goes on in our brain when we conjure up musical expression from the deep recesses of our unconscious.

His most recent (and most promising) study involved placing six musicians in the fMRI machine with a specially-constructed plastic keyboard.  They were asked to play a typical 12-bar blues, then were told to start improvising on their own.  The fMRI recorded their brain activity while they did so, allowing the researchers to compare brain activity between playing music and improvising music.

What they found was an increase in activation of the medial prefrontal cortex - an area that is often associated with movement planning and decision making , coupled with a decrease in the lateral prefrontal cortex - an area that has been associated with inhibition and self-regulation.

While such a finding is preliminary at best, it does suggest that there are some very real, very fundamental differences between creation and recall from memory.  It is really difficult to determine what exactly is going on as these musical processes are carried out in the brain, but future studies with more subjects and more sophisticated recording techniques should shed light as to what exactly is going on in the brain.

Importantly, Dr. Limb emphasized that creativity is inherent to human beings, and an essential part of our society.  While he is a medical scientist, required to spend half of his time helping patients, perhaps this research will serve as a stimulus to the rest of the scientific community out there.  The nature of creativity is an elusive and complex phenomenon, and it will surely require an equally elegant and creative approach in order to be understood.

via Urbanite Magazine



1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

taken from an article by the amazing Douglas Adams