Neil deGrasse Tyson
Wayne Shorter
Herbie Hancock
Sean Ono Lennon
Stephen Tyson
Chuck Nice
Mona Chalabi
Charles Limb


In a recent podcast from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, he talks about the Nature of creativity with jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock who once played with Miles Davis. The bulk of the podcast examines how improvisation works and is worth listening to on StarTalk Radio. What stood out was the neurochemistry that Dr. Charles Limb of the University of California San Franciso talks about. As a surgeon, neuroscientist and musician his research focuses on the neural basis of musical creativity.

Using functional MRI they assess jazz pianists to compare improvised activity to memorized activity in the brain. The result is the prefrontal cortex shuts down when musicians improvised in comparison to memorized. Conscious self monitoring phases out during improvisation while changes radically shift between two states.

This means creativity is the novel combination of ordinary processess in the brain. The brain is shutting itself off in order to allow unrestricted flow of ideas during improvisation. It’s the brain doing something that its well equipped to do in order to come up with a new idea.

Can we assert that creativity is hardwired in the brain or do you have to train your brain to be creative?

Both. Humans are inherently creative but there are multiple forms of it. Some in the art realm some in the mundane realm. One example being driving home from work dodging traffic is a form of improvisation. The human brain is hardwired to create because that is how we survived as a species. However scientists still know very little about how humans are able to be creative. Out of all the things we humans have had the capacity for, creativity may be the most important trait as a species. Being able to analyze real time data of creativity in the brain allows us to understand how we generate novelty and new solutions to problems in the future. 

Artists are creative experts in society because they have been trained to come up with new ideas. For any artist doing spontaneous improvisation they have trained their brains over years of study to improvise on the fly. This is done by individuals dedicating their lives to practicing their craft in order to generate ideas in the brain that previously we did not know how to do. By studying how creatives do these things can help understand basic fundamental mechanisms of how the brain is able to create.

When studying the connection between music and math in the journal Nature, people were asked to listen to Mozart Sonata for 10 min before taking a test of spatial reasoning skills like visualizing objects, problem solving related to physics and math. Results showed that people who listened to music scored higher on the spatial reasoning test. Another study showed rats who navigated a maze faster after listening to the same Mozart Sonata then rats who did not. Lots of data exists but the Mozart Effect ultimately only improves spatial reasoning skills for 10-15 minutes and is not sustainable. Controls were compared to white noise or no music at all.

Art + Science:
Leonardo Da Vinci is noted by Tyson as the primary figure as an example where art and science were one in the same in parrallel to the product design of Apple. Hancock mentions the scientific community who created this technological age like Larry Page was inspired by music in starting Google and Albert Einstein played the violin during his thought experiments. However Tyson points out a key difference of creativity in art and science: If Beethoven was never born, no one would compose the 9th symphony. His creation is unique to him. Where as if Einstein wasn’t born someone would have eventually discovered the General Theory of Relativity. His discovery is a preexisting thing in the Universe. So the creativity of the scientist is around preexisting reality. Where the artist can create their own reality. Visionaries are those whose creations are ahead of our time where the rest has to catch up. In Science the Universe is the judge, jury and executioner of creativity. In Art the ultimate judge is the human spirit.


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