REVIEW: I Origins: The Eyes Have It

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  Hold your memory for a moment with a blind hand.
Write some stories for tomorrow.
From the bottle of amnesia
Find instructions to salvation, to oblivion supreme.
Don’t be tempted to look back. It has all happen before.

‘I Origins,’ an Emo-Science Thriller From Mike Cahill

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling star in a science-fiction thriller that is also a convulsive, endearing love story.

The words from the song “Dust It Off,” by the indie Franco-Finnish duo The Dø, play in the heads of molecular biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) and the girl of his dreams, Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), as they begin a passionate affair of opposites. He’s a man of science, tracking the PAX6 gene in mice in an attempt to definitively disprove the fundamentalist Christian belief in a deity. She is a creature of the ethereal, eternal spirit; she’s also a woman who tells you what she thinks of you, she’s passionate and great in bed. Even more enticing are her eyes: blue on the inner part, greenish gray on the outer part, with specks of different colors. Ian has been taking photographs of eyes since he was a kid; the inspiration his lab work, they are also his continuing obsession, his own kind of religion. He sees Sofi and, instantly, the eyes have it.

The eyes are windows to the soul. That fuzzy bit of wisdom is repeated several times, with both reverence and skepticism, in “I Origins,” Mike Cahill’s new film. Whatever that may mean, there’s no doubt that eyes are also the portals through which movies, good and bad, enter our consciousness. Considered strictly as a visual experience, this one, which might be described as a faith-based emo-science romance-thriller, is often quite beguiling.

This is partly a matter of casting. Michael Pitt and Brit Marling (the star and co-writer of “Another Earth,” Mr. Cahill’s haunting debut) play Ian and Karen, blond genetic researchers who speak in earnest whispers and occasionally allow tears to fill their beautiful eyes. Speaking of which, and for good measure, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey shows up as Sofi, a mysterious, capricious young woman with stunning peepers who captures Ian’s heart and challenges his empiricist ideas about the world. He thinks that the experiment he and Karen are pursuing — they are trying to engineer the evolution of sight in blind worms — will decisively refute religious accounts of existence. Sofi favors a more mystical view and tries to convince Ian that he may be gifted with second sight.

For about half its running time, “I Origins” wanders suggestively and seductively through the lives of these three extremely attractive people, casting hints about what their activities might mean while spending a lot of time in bed with Ian and Sofi. Mr. Cahill has a dreamy, Malicky camera style and a subtle, elusive approach to storytelling, and for a while this casts an intriguing, melancholy spell. New York looks scruffy and gorgeous and bohemian, and so (at the risk of repeating myself) do Mr. Pitt and Ms. Bergès-Frisbey. Ms. Marling, too, but at this point, she’s mostly in the lab, while the others are on picturesque subway platforms and wind-tousled streets. They often disagree and have arguments.

Then a lot of stuff happens that is mildly surprising in the moment and grindingly obvious in retrospect. Someone dies, a baby is born, anxious conversations are had, and the action shifts from New York to New Delhi (both exquisitely shot with a Red Digital camera by Markus Förderer, the cinematographer). In the midst of it all, the argument between spiritualism[Sofi] and science[Ian] that has been hovering in the background becomes more explicit.

And also fairly embarrassing to partisans on both sides and ruinous to the movie’s sensuous, twee magic. Ian’s conviction that the data he and Karen have assembled will end the debate is as simplistic and immature as the contrary notion (which gains force as the story advances) that supernaturalism could be experimentally proved. It’s possible that movies, which so often traffic in illusion, have an inherent bias toward the irrational. But it is usually better — as the middle career of M. Night Shyamalan conclusively demonstrates — to embrace supernaturalism at the level of effects rather than that of ideas.


From left, Brit Marling and Michael Pitt star as genetic researchers, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey is a mysterious woman who views life far less scientifically than they do, in “I Origins.”

See the brand new I ORIGINS music video by Fall On Your Sword

THE DØ – Dust it Off

The Making Of ‘I Origins’ (2014)

“I Origins” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Some of the philosophical discussions are conducted naked in bed.

Michael Hastings, Bridge-Burning Journalist (1980-2013)

By Jim Naureckas – 15 Comments

You can tell what kind of reporter Michael Hastings was by the kind of reporter who hated him.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations,” the New York Times’ John Burns told right-wing talkshow host Hugh Hewitt (FAIR Blog, 7/16/10). Burns was discussing Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile (6/22/10) of Stanley McChrystal that ended up costing the general his job running the occupation of Afghanistan–mainly because Hastings kept in all the impolitic comments that McChrystal and his underlings assumed would be discreetly ignored.

Burns expected that any decent reporter would do the same thing:

MichaelHastings-350x450My feeling is that it’s the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not, and, to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report.

Hastings, a reporter for Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed who died in a car crash in L.A. yesterday at the age of 33, didn’t see it as his job to maintain “good media/military relations,” or to decide what is “necessary to report.” To the contrary–he told CounterSpin (1/27/12) that one of his golden rules for reporting was, “What does everybody know who’s on the inside, but no one’s willing to say or write.”

Hastings never forgot that journalists’ loyalties are supposed to be with the public and not to the government officials whose actions they cover–and that approach distinguished him not only from Burns but from most of his colleagues. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith (6/18/13) recalled in a tribute to his reporter:

Michael cared about friends and was good at making them; it visibly pained him when, late in the 2012 campaign, the reporters around him made little secret of their distrust for him. But he also knew…he was there to tell his readers what was going on.

What Tim Dickinson (Rolling Stone, 6/18/13) called Hastings’ “enthusiastic breaches of the conventions of access journalism” were what enabled him to report the unguarded assessments of the officers running the occupation of Afghanistan: “Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm.” It’s not that other reporters didn’t hear such remarks–but they knew better than to report them, or thought they did.

A Politico story quoted by NYU’s Jay Rosen (6/24/10) got at the structural problems that prevent most journalists from telling their readers the truth:

And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.

(Rosen noted that that line got edited out of later versions of the story, perhaps because it revealed too much.)

McChrystal’s replacement, Gen. David Petraeus, was a favorite of most of the press corps, but Hastings went after exactly what got him that great press: his superlative skills at image management. “More so than any other leading military figure, Petraeus’ entire philosophy has been based on hiding the truth, on deception, on building a false image,” he argued (BuzzFeed, 11/11/12).

Hastings had a refreshing lack of worry about his image; arguing for BuzzFeed to publish in full a testy exchange between himself and a Hillary Clinton aide, Hastings responded to Ben Smith’s warning that the correspondence didn’t make either side look particularly attractive:
“Everyone knows I’m an asshole. The point is that they’re assholes.”

His lack of pretense was evident in his advice to aspiring journalists:

When interviewing for a job, tell the editor how you love to report. How your passion is gathering information. Do not mention how you want to be a writer, use the word “prose,” or that deep down you have a sinking suspicion you are the next Norman Mailer.

Joining the general panic at Hastings’ escape from the herd with his McChrystal piece, CBS’s Lara Logan told CNN’s Reliable Sources (6/27/10; FAIR Blog, 6/28/10):

I mean, the question is, really, is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious, that they deserved to end a career like McChrystal’s? Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.

Given the relative benefits to the United States of an aggressive free press compared to occupying foreign lands, many would say Michael Hastings served his country much better than Stanley McChrystal ever did.

About Jim Naureckas
Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR’s bimonthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the ’90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR’s website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR’s program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.


Guy Montag
1 week ago
Both of Hasting’s books are well worth reading. His 2008 book, “I Lost My Love in Baghdad,” is especially poignant now; his first fiancée died in a car that was set on fire in an ambush.
Last June, I exchanged emails with Michael after I wrote a post annotating his 2012 book “The Operators” about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s 2004 friendly-fire death in Afghanistan. In January, he thanked me for sending him my post about McChrystal’s disingenuous memoir (see “Something to Die For” & “Never Shall I Fail My Comrades” at the Feral Firefighter blog). I now regret never calling him with the phone numbers he gave me in his last email.
I’ll miss Michael’s honest, no BS reporting that is sadly lacking among the stenographic mainstream press (e.g. we both wrote about our unpleasant interactions with the Pentagon’s NYT reporter Thom Shanker).
NYT Pays Tribute to Hastings by Attacking Him After Death
1 week ago
[…] Michael Hastings is in excellent company when his New York Times obituary (6/19/13) went out of its way to discredit […]
NYT Pays Tribute to Hastings by Attacking Him After Death «
1 week ago
[…] Michael Hastings is in excellent company when his New York Times obituary (6/19/13) went out of its way to discredit […]
1 week ago
Love FAIR. But this regurgitation:”died in a car crash in L.A.” is not what we expect from you. Not even a glancing mention of the suspicious circumstances that we all now what happened?
1 week ago
well said and well done, jim. here’s my little tribute to my friend and colleague.
Michael Hastings was a real reporter : Dangerous Intersection
1 week ago
[…] Tribute to Michael Hastings at FAIR, by Jim Naureckas: […]
1 week ago

I certainly hope that Mr. Hasting’s friends use their investigative skills to present some facts and the possibility of murder. Who shot the video of the accident? Why was he out at 4 PM? What do fire fighters and mechanics make of the accident? What was he investigating? Was he threatened? It seems that he would not just lament a friend’s suspicious death.
What a brave man. When others were talking about the Petraeus affair, he asked why and identified the General’s Shia death squads and creation of a civil war.
1 week ago

Correction: Why was he out at 4 AM?
Sara Landers
1 week ago
to Mary:
Mr. Hastings was a brilliant and brave journalist but to suggest his death was anything than what it was is ridiculous. There were eye witnesses who have said they first heard the car speeding and looked up to see him hit and tree and the car burst into flames. While he was all. the good things said about it, he was 33 and possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs and his driving was impaired. Who knows why he was out at 4 AM. He could have been on an assignment, or any reason, but that is hardly a reason to suspect a conspiracy or murder!!!
1 week ago
This reporter was apparently about to report on John Brennan recently appointed head of the CIA, and past preparer of the “kill list” for Pres. O. That his work may have meant the end of two Generals active in the field of imperial wars and occupation — what would be their qualms about a little payback? What about John Brennan who has demonstrated his lack of what might be called elegance whenever he gets close to a camera or microphone? I have no info. and if I did it would have to be hearsay, but I can’t discount the idea that something very much out of the ordinary occurred. Remember, Brennan was a GW Bush appointee before Pres. O. Should this help one’s imagination, a bit?
Kathleen Murphy
1 week ago

To Sara Landers,
Let’s get one thing straight, an explosion is NOT a “car accident,” and we should all expect better from FAIR than joining the corporate chorus on that one. And if the testimony of the witnesses meant anything to you, you would’ve also noticed that they all said they heard, and felt, an explosion. (Perhaps those witnesses will be soon be threatened by the FBI to stop saying it was explosion?)
I find it hard to believe that a person who (was it just a day before?), advises his friends to have a lawyer present if the FBI comes around asking questions, then immediately turns around to be so stupid as to drive 100 mph in a residential zone???? Really? And, as you inventively suggest- “33 and may have been under the influence” -a nice little character bashing of someone you don’t even know, shame on you! (But, “it has to be a car accident because there’s no possible way it was a murder” -right? A cowardly circular argument, please GROW …UP!!!!)
And now all we have left is an FBI denial that it was even investigating Michael Hastings? Sorry, I’m going to believe Michael Hastings before I ever believe the FBI. (But perhaps that image of “33 and under the influence while driving 100 mph in a residential area” is going to help the FBI look more credible in the public mind?)
This idea that every person who doesn’t trust our corporate government’s version of events is a “stupid conspiracy theorist,” is a symptom of cognitive dissonance that Americans collectively need to snap out of -or we will never get out from under the thumb of the fascist corporate dictatorship which is unfolding every day, before our very eyes.
Please, FAIR, have the maturity to care more about the facts than preserving some superficial public image that you are not like… Alex Jones? You are over-doing it this time with this Michael Hastings “car accident” story and impressing no one.
David Lloyd-Jones
1 week ago

Well, so much for “Reliable Sources,” which was always my sign to turn off the TV on Sunday morning: Howie’s gone (back?) to Fox.
I’ve always prided myself on my enemies, who select themselves well, and I think Hastings could do the same.
NYT Public Editor Joins Critics of Hastings Obit
6 days ago
[…] death as in life, journalist Michael Hastings is creating a public debate on good […]
As Zimmerman mainstream media fix surfaces, mourn this man. | Wobbly Warrior’s Blog
6 days ago
[…] via Michael Hastings, Bridge-Burning Journalist (1980-2013). […]
Jack Y
6 days ago

Not to pile on you Sarah…but your knee jerk reaction to bring up intoxication is kind of strange to say the least. Where did that come from. I guess we will never know though…since the car EXPLODED upon impact and his body is said to have been burned beyond recognition. This does not normally happen in a car accident…even a 100 MPH head on collision. I do media history now…but I have worked on many a car and have many friends who do that as a profession today…unless a car is sitting there for awhile leaking gas, the new cars don’t “EXPLODE!”.
And FAIR…you could have left it at “died in a single car accident early in the morning. An investigation is still underway.” It reminded me of a news blip I remember seeing late at night/early morning from way back…when Headline News was young and a day or two before the Noriega trial. The lead government “witness” was killed in a single car accident…ran in to a building all by himself. Even as a late teen/early 20 something then I thought to myself…really? The government lets their star witness go for a ride alone right before a trial they claim is historic. I assumed he was taking to the witness coaching very well. Imagine how many powerful people Noriega had dirt on in the drug running circles.
Always being a “coincidence theorist” is no less naive or intellectually dishonest than always being a “conspiracy theorist”.
Hopefully I’ll get to meet you on the other side Michael:-) Not too soon though!

Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing


Image: Baptiste Alchourroun

This essay was written by Robert J. Zatorre and Valorie N. Salimpoor.  Robert Zatorre is a postdoctoral neuroscientist at the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.  Valorie N. Salimpoor is a postdoctoral neuroscientist at the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.  The essay was published by The New York Times,  June 7, 2013

By Robert J. Zatorre and Valorie N. Salimpoor

MUSIC is not tangible. You can’t eat it, drink it or mate with it. It doesn’t protect against the rain, wind or cold. It doesn’t vanquish predators or mend broken bones. And yet humans have always prized music — or well beyond prized, loved it.

In the modern age we spend great sums of money to attend concerts, download music files, play instruments and listen to our favorite artists whether we’re in a subway or salon. But even in Paleolithic times, people invested significant time and effort to create music, as the discovery of flutes carved from animal bones would suggest.

So why does this thingless “thing” — at its core, a mere sequence of sounds — hold such potentially enormous intrinsic value?

The quick and easy explanation is that music brings a unique pleasure to humans. Of course, that still leaves the question of why. But for that, neuroscience is starting to provide some answers.

More than a decade ago, our research team used brain imaging to show that music that people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion. Subsequently we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.

When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.

But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

The idea that reward is partly related to anticipation (or the prediction of a desired outcome) has a long history in neuroscience. Making good predictions about the outcome of one’s actions would seem to be essential in the context of survival, after all. And dopamine neurons, both in humans and other animals, play a role in recording which of our predictions turn out to be correct.

To dig deeper into how music engages the brain’s reward system, we designed a study to mimic online music purchasing. Our goal was to determine what goes on in the brain when someone hears a new piece of music and decides he likes it enough to buy it.

We used music-recommendation programs to customize the selections to our listeners’ preferences, which turned out to be indie and electronic music, matching Montreal’s hip music scene. And we found that neural activity within the striatum — the reward-related structure — was directly proportional to the amount of money people were willing to spend.

But more interesting still was the cross talk between this structure and the auditory cortex, which also increased for songs that were ultimately purchased compared with those that were not.

Why the auditory cortex? Some 50 years ago, Wilder Penfield, the famed neurosurgeon and the founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, reported that when neurosurgical patients received electrical stimulation to the auditory cortex while they were awake, they would sometimes report hearing music. Dr. Penfield’s observations, along with those of many others, suggest that musical information is likely to be represented in these brain regions.

The auditory cortex is also active when we imagine a tune: think of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — your cortex is abuzz! This ability allows us not only to experience music even when it’s physically absent, but also to invent new compositions and to reimagine how a piece might sound with a different tempo or instrumentation.

We also know that these areas of the brain encode the abstract relationships between sounds — for instance, the particular sound pattern that makes a major chord major, regardless of the key or instrument. Other studies show distinctive neural responses from similar regions when there is an unexpected break in a repetitive pattern of sounds, or in a chord progression. This is akin to what happens if you hear someone play a wrong note — easily noticeable even in an unfamiliar piece of music.

These cortical circuits allow us to make predictions about coming events on the basis of past events. They are thought to accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture and enabling us to understand the music we hear in relation to our stored mental representations of the music we’ve heard.

So each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, these brain networks actively create expectations based on our stored knowledge.

Composers and performers intuitively understand this: they manipulate these prediction mechanisms to give us what we want — or to surprise us, perhaps even with something better.

In the cross talk between our cortical systems, which analyze patterns and yield expectations, and our ancient reward and motivational systems, may lie the answer to the question: does a particular piece of music move us?

When that answer is yes, there is little — in those moments of listening, at least — that we value more.

While others have Paris and Rome, we’ll always have Brooklyn.

The Grand Army Plaza – Brooklyn, NYC

While others have Paris and Rome, we’ll always have Brooklyn. But justifiable pride of place should not make us reluctant to look deeper and examine serious challenges to Brooklyn’s well being. ~ Marilyn Gelber

There’s no shortage of pride in Brooklyn. Whether you’re a fan of pizza from Di Fara’s, Spumoni Gardens, Roberta’s or Lucali’s; or you claim to know where to find the very best taco and dim sum in Sunset Park, the next big music act out of Bushwick or Williamsburg, or the block in Dyker Heights with the most stunning Christmas lights—it’s pride in the vitality and character of our communities, their rich history, the perfect scale and look of our old buildings and the sharp elbows of the new ones, which adds up to the always fascinating and seldom dull landscape of 70 distinct neighborhoods that is Brooklyn.

While others have Paris and Rome, we’ll always have Brooklyn — a borough of bridges, brownstones, and boardwalks; a home with endless wonders to explore, just a walk or subway ride away.

But justifiable pride of place should not make us reluctant to look deeper and examine serious challenges to Brooklyn’s well being.

While Brooklyn is booming—rapidly rivaling our neighbor across the river as the place to live and work—it’s still home to sky -high poverty rates, too many low-performing schools, under resourced public housing developments, shaky health facilities, young people out of school and out of work, and a tragically large number of seniors barely getting by.

When we launched the Brooklyn Community Foundation just over two years ago, we wanted to be a force for good. We wanted to bring resources and ideas to strengthen communities and engage Brooklynites in giving and service to others. But we knew that in order to do this we needed to help Brooklynites look through a more accurate lens on issues and trends in the borough to help us all be more deeply informed about the place we live: what’s affecting our neighborhood schools, how local businesses are faring in this economy, and how are decisions being made about future development. Francis Bacon was right: Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est. Knowledge is power.

So our sights were set on generating more easily accessible local information—data, reporting, analysis—to empower Brooklynites to get active and be part of making Brooklyn better for all who live here.

To lay the groundwork for an information renaissance in Brooklyn, we took two major steps. First, we funded and created the Center for the Study of Brooklyn at Brooklyn College, a research institute solely focused on Brooklyn. Second, we teamed up with City Limits to get a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to build the Brooklyn Bureau, a new source of serious investigative journalism for all of Brooklyn.

Right now in the media there are two Brooklyns: the Brooklyn of artisanal cheese shops and the Brooklyn of murder and mayhem.

While we love that there’s no shortage of ink on how “cool” Brooklyn is, there’s an egregious lack of reporting dedicated to civic and social issues in what would be the nation’s fourth largest city. We’re not comfortable with the idea of Brooklyn being split apart by income disparity and selective investment, and the general media paying attention to just a sliver of what’s happening here.

We need to hold everyone to a higher standard. And the Brooklyn Bureau, with its dedication to investigating local issues particularly in underserved communities across our borough, is a key part of our work to do that.

While City Limits’ reporters are canvassing Brooklyn for untold stories and new perspectives, researchers at the Center for the Study of Brooklyn at Brooklyn College are completing work on a series of Neighborhood Profiles for each of Brooklyn’s 18 Community Districts. These information-rich profiles look at key civic indicators over the past decade, so that we can begin to see trends and identify needs across neighborhoods, the borough, and the City.

The Neighborhood Profiles will premiere on the Brooklyn Bureau later this month. In the spring, we will build on this neighborhood-level work to publish the first ever Borough-wide Brooklyn Trends Report, examining the strength of our collective local economy, housing stock, health and healthcare, public safety, education system, environment, and the arts.

We invite you to join us at the Brooklyn Community Foundation as we create a chronicle of 21st century Brooklyn life.

In subsequent columns we’ll take a thorough look at each of Brooklyn’s 18 Community Districts through the lens of City Limits’ reporting, the Center for the Study of Brooklyn’s data analysis, and the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s knowledge of the nonprofit community and key public policy issues.

We hope you’ll accompany us on this journey to explore one of the liveliest, most interesting places on the planet—sometimes referred to as the people’s republic of Brooklyn—and we hope it inspires you to Do Good Right Here.

Art and Neuroscience: a State of the Union – The Creativity Post

By Noah Hutton
Noah is a film director based in New York City. His first feature film, Crude Independence, was an official selection of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival and won Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Oxford Film Festival. In 2010, he began filming a 10-year documentary about The Blue Brain Project, and in 2011 he directed a series of 30 short films for Scientific American, and served as a judge for the 2011 and 2012 Brain Art Competitions. His 2012 concert film King for Two Days, which premiered at the 2012 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, is a portrait of jazz drummer Dave King (The Bad Plus). Noah graduated from Wesleyan University, where he studied art history and neuroscience.

Neuroscience is providing a new language for questions of art and mind.

Chances are you’ve come across a neuro-something, sometime recently. Indeed, there’s neuroscience, the study of the brain using the tools of modern science, but then there’s an ever-growing constellation of its young, interdisciplinary offspring: neuroeconomics, neurogastrology, neurotheology, and even the pseudoscience-meets-beverage Neuro™, among others. The relative merit of each is up for debate (see a recent column by Steven Poole in The Guardian for a particularly critical stance towards these neuro-constructs, and another take-down by Alva Noë in The New York Times).

What I’m concerned with here, and will be in future posts on this site, is one of the more prominent members of this interdisciplinary offspring: neuroaesthetics, the conversation between brain science and the arts. The field is undoubtedly young and still finding its legs, leaving it vulnerable to criticism from the Steven Pooles and Alva Noës of the world, who see wishy-washy, romanticized bridge-building in such a pursuit. I disagree. I believe one should not confuse infancy with naïveté– that neuroscience is indeed giving us a new language through which we can ask new questions about art, its effects on the observer, its genesis in the creative mind, and its possible explanatory power in dealing with murky subjects like consciousness, subjective experience, and memory.

To begin, I will try try to identify a few lines of inquiry into the current dialogue between art and neuroscience, and to describe the angle of each line’s approach to that relationship. It’s most likely an incomplete outline, so please chime in with any additions you can think of in the comments section. This outline was the basis of my talking points at “This is Your Brain on Art,” a panel I sat on recently at 3rd Ward in Brooklyn, NY (here’s a video of the event), and originally appeared in text form, before the event, over at my website The Beautiful Brain.

Here are three approaches:

1. Art —-> Brain. The perception of art by the brain.

This is the approach that studies what happens to art when it enters the brain. How do our brains reconstruct, assess, and fasten judgement to works of art? This includes not only bottom-up flows (sensory input moving higher and higher, up into the cortex), but also top-down flows (expectations influencing the viewing or listening process; jogged memories coloring our incoming perceptions).

These flows of external aesthetic features translated into internal neural activity are what the vast majority of current neuroaesthetics research is concerned with, and indeed what most books concerning art and the brain investigate. Here we’re interested in perception and analysis of these basic features of an artwork: how we see color, detect motion, hear sound, recognize faces, feel rhythm, and what the peculiarities of each perceptual system tell us about the way the brain stitches these properties together.

Then, at the next level, we can begin to untangle emotional and executive areas of the brain and their involvement in making and viewing art. Art’s effects can be correlated with the production of fear via heightened activity in the amygdala, pleasure in the nucleus accumbens, mystery/problem solving in the prefrontal cortex, disgust in the insula– all operating purely as correlations of subjective experience to distinct brain-states. Also surely involved at these higher levels is our empathetic connection to the work, be it a character in a film, or a melody in a song, and the top-down control that empathy has over the ongoing perception of the work at hand.

This approach can focus on any artform as it enters the brain, such as:

Visual art. How the brain sees paintings and sculptures, from color and luminance to faces and perspective. There is a boatload of work going on here, with big names like Livingstone, Zeki, and Ramachandran. Here is a review of some visual neuroaesthetics work by those heavyweight researchers, and a podcast with Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist and painter who is interested in the relationship between science and art.

Music. This line of study moves from perception of sound by mechanical sensors in our cochlea to its processing in the auditory cortex, and the rich tapestry of emotion that music can provoke within us. This is Your Brain on Music is a popular book in this field by neuroscientist and musician Dan Levitin. Examples of this kind of work abound; elsewhere, I’ve posted about Charles Limb, who studies the brains of improvising jazz musicians, yielding some interesting initial results.

Literature. Though there’s some interesting work being done here, it’s perhaps the haziest of the artistic disciplines to approach with the tools of present- day neuroscience. Most real science being done that involves the literary arts concerns very elemental stages of reading– one word, one sentence– and their neural correlates, as seen through a fMRI scanner. Here’s a NY Times article about some of this recent fMRI work on the neuroscience of the written word. Another strain of this inquiry involves literature in the context of Darwinian evolution– here’s an overview from Beautiful Brain contributor Ben Ehrlich about the “Literary Darwinists.”

Dance. This line of inquiry concerns the perception of movement, and perhaps most importantly for the neuroscientific angle, the alleged mirror neuron system. The Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series featured choreographer Mark Morris and neuroscientist Bevil Conway in discussion about the relationship between dance and the brain. Cognitive neuroscientist Mark Changizi has a theory about the relationship between dance, music, and the brain, that’s worth looking into: Changizi believes music has been culturally selected over time to sound like human movement.

Theater & Film. Theater and film have a special relationship with the brain (see next section for some thoughts on this). Both must necessarily be studied in the broadest of terms– for unlike visual art or music, both are truly multisensory experiences and thus harder to study at the level of isolated perceptual systems. There have been some inroads made, especially along the “neurocinematics” avenue (there’s a good review of the field by the Neurocritic).

2. Art Brain. The parallels between art and the brain.

This is the approach that lines up art and the brain next to one another and examines the similarities between the processes of our mind and the artwork that those minds create. It’s here where I think the conversation around cinema and theater really takes off. In particular, film, in its aesthetic and sensory richness (and optimal viewing space, in my opinion: a darkened theater) gets the closest, as an artform, to the sensory and emotional unity of human consciousness, and maybe more specifically, human dreaming, as housed in the activity of the brain.

Some further thoughts on these parallels, specific to film.

A film is a constructed subjective experience, very much like one’s own consciousness. The filmmaker goes out, collects footage, and edits it together, constructing a unique consciousness that can be presented in a two-hour window. The construction of a film includes editing (mirroring our own selective and sometimes modified memories), framing (where we look, how we hear, what came before), rhythm (day and night, patterns of movement, a beating heart).

A film has a scope, be it of a historical event, a range of emotion in a specific moment, a day in a person’s life, and so on, that is achieved both by what is seen and heard in the film, and also by what is not seen and heard. The power of suggestion, of the unsaid, can bear tremendous weight in a film. This mirrors the tip-of-the-iceberg consciousness we all experience, with the vast scope of our unconscious experience resting just beneath that surface. In this way, film not only parallels our conscious, edited experience, but also the non-conscious, suggested experience, which can color much of the way we see the world.

3. Art <—- Brain. The brain, as seen through the lens of art.

This is an approach that feels less common, but one that I think has potential on the level of pure theory. This is the approach that believes art to be a valuable lens through which to observe and understand subjective, first-person consciousness in the brain. In other words, it's interesting to study the brain during an artistic experience, but once we've lined up all subjective experience to constellations of firing neurons and distinct chemical washes, and we understand the general architecture of the brain, maybe we actually need to look at the art itself as an unparalleled mirror of the internal neural architecture that forms subjective experience. For if we've understood the architecture in purely neuroscientific terms, maybe in order to break new ground on understanding what goes on inside those rooms, how first-person consciousness takes flight from the connections and flows of activity among neurons in the brain, we'll need to look more closely at how different modes and styles of art are true reflections of the neural landscapes they emerged from. John Onian's concept of "Neuroarthistory” is the closest current approach to this line of thinking that I’m aware of (here’s an interview I taped with Mr. Onians).

This third approach is related to #2 above, but here you’re really stitching together everything from #1 and #2 to make strides in understanding the highest functions of the mind through the art it makes and sees. You’re not treating the art as a passive artifact that only comes to life once it’s ingested by the nervous system, which you then set about studying. In this third approach, you’re treating the art as a sort of living record with a unique perspective on the nervous system from which it emerged. For one such attempt at this type of approach, here’s an essay I wrote over at The Beautiful Brain about abstract art and its roots in hierarchical neural architectures.

If you’re still skeptical about this whole dialogue between the arts and brain sciences, maybe you will agree with the aforementioned critique of neuroaesthetics by Alva Noë. Here is my response to Noë’s essay, in defense of neuroscience and neuroaesthetics. Please chime in with your views in the comments section below.

Tags: art, arts, brain, neuroscience, philosophy, science

Musical Creativity and the Brain – The Creativity Post

By Monica Lopez-Gonzalez
Mónica López-González, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Mónica received her doctoral degree in Cognitive Science from the Johns Hopkins University. Her current research focuses on the neural correlates of artistic creativity, with an emphasis on musical production.


Brain imaging studies reveal the neural underpinnings of spontaneous musical creativity. Improvisation activates brain areas associated with language and sensorimotor skills and deactivates areas at rest during dreaming and meditation.

Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored with Charles J. Limb M.D. You can learn more about Dr. Limb here.

While working with young jazz soloists, Miles Davis once said, “Play what you hear, not what you know.” Practice, experience, and sheer talent taught Davis that a personally and socially satisfying gig occurs when the ideas entering the musician’s imagination are developed through solo improvisations instead of ignored in favor of practiced patterns. [1] Simply put, no one wants to pay for and hear a contrived performance. Both the fascination we have with the art of in-the-moment creation and the value we place on it continue to flourish. Contemporary artists as varied as pianist Keith Jarrett, vocalist Bobby McFerrin, and rapper Eminem make their living off of improvising and regularly pack concert venues.

Which brings us to the main questions underlying both theoretical and empirical work on creativity: What is it, and how do we accomplish it? The literature on creativity and its related topics—intuition, expert knowledge, problem-solving, achievement, and case studies of exceptional accomplishments—is vast, with perspectives coming from fields as diverse as philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, musicology, and art history. [2-15] But research on creativity, particularly from the psychological perspective, can be considered a young science, having progressed only after prominent American psychologist J.P. Guilford made a plea for its empirical study during his 1950 presidential address to the American Psychological Association. [3] Despite the later advent of brain-imaging techniques in the 1990s, the neuroscience of creativity began to harbor interest and to pick up pace only very recently.

Any empirical work on the topic, however, requires a clear operational definition. The general consensus is that as a prominent characteristic of human intelligence, creativity is a fundamental activity of human information processing. [12] A primary difference between our brains and those of other animals is our capacity to engage in cognitive abilities such as reasoning, representation, association, working memory, and self-reflection. During any creative act, from language production to marketing techniques selling the latest iPhone, ideas or past experiences are combined in novel and significant ways via the interaction of such cognitive capacities. The creative cognition approach is the current model dominating the neuroscientific study of creative thinking. According to this approach, creativity is far from a magical event of unexpected random inspiration. Instead, it is a mental occurrence that results from the application of ordinary cognitive processes. [16]

Humans appear to have a propensity for making complex new things that are not explicitly necessary for biological survival or reproduction. In comparison to other arts, such as design, photography, and sculpture, however, the universal abilities of musical creation and processing are generally accepted as some of the oldest and most fundamental of human socio-cognitive development. In fact, researchers have argued for music’s role in evolutionary biology. [17-19] Scholar Ellen Dissanayake has further claimed from an ethnological stance that the creation and appreciation of art more generally are advanced adaptive behaviors that are key to social survival. [20-22]

Creativity and Prefrontal Cortex Function

A summary of brain structure and function reveals the importance of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to creative thinking. The brain is functionally divided into the frontal lobe and three posterior cortices known as the occipital, the parietal, and the temporal (OPT). Neurons in the OPT cortices are devoted to perception and long-term memory. Primary sensory cortices of all sense modalities, such as visual, motor, somatosensory, and auditory, are located in the OPT cortices, respectively. Each sensory cortex has an association cortex that further gathers and incorporates sensory information from its respective primary cortex.

Courtesy of Mónica López-González and Charles J. Limb

Unlike the other cortices, the frontal lobe neither receives direct sensory input nor stores long-term memory. The frontal lobe is the seat of executive function and is essential to our ability to plan, to make decisions, to form judgments, to assess risk, and to formulate insight. The PFC, which occupies half the frontal lobe, integrates already highly processed information to enable even higher cognitive functions such as self-construct, [23] complex social function, [24] planning, [25] and intentional action, [26] among others. Research has further shown that working memory, [27] temporal integration, [28] and sustained and directed attention [29] are key cognitive functions that provide the underlying framework to compute even higher cognitive functions because they act as buffers, simultaneously maintaining in-the-moment information in consciousness and ordering it in space-time as associations proceed.[30]

As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio suggests, a working memory buffer is critical for creative thinking because it allows for the retention of relevant knowledge while problem-solving; [31] without it, the back-and-forth reworking of associations and consequent novel solution identification would be impossible feats, as is the case in monkeys and humans with PFC lesions. [32] The PFC is further divisible into two functionally distinct parts: the ventromedial (VMPFC), which is connected to the amygdala and the cingulate cortex in the limbic system and is implicated in emotional evaluation, [24] and the dorsolateral (DLPFC), which receives input from the occipital, parietal, and temporal regions and sends direct output to the motor cortices. Here too, Damasio notes the importance of these functional distinctions and suggests that the PFC’s ability to evaluate appropriateness is critical to the problem-solver as she determines how creative her solution really is. [31]

Types of Creative Processes and Their Underlying Brain Mechanisms

If we are to understand the underlying mechanisms of creative production, what is important is not so much the context for which the result was produced, but rather the hypothesis that creative thinking can lead to different types of inventions and disparate processes. In line with psychologist Ronald Finke’s findings that mental images can be generated intentionally or spontaneously during the problem-solving process, [11] one of the more interesting proposals circulating is neurocognitive scientist Arne Dietrich’s claim that either of these problem-solving modes can occur within an emotional or cognitive context. Moreover, creative behavior is ultimately the result of a combination of the four psychological processes described below. [14]

Deliberate cognitive: This process involves inventiveness that comes from sustained work in a discipline. Take, for example, Eadweard Muybridge, the British photographer who experimented for years with multiple cameras and precision timing. Eventually, he created a string of negatives proving that all of a horse’s hooves are indeed airborne at a certain point during a trot. The PFC induces this type of creativity by allowing for focused attention and connections to information stored and perceived in other parts of the brain. Muybridge revolutionized the field of animal locomotion by systematically using his knowledge of camera mechanics in novel ways and serendipitously uncovering the physics behind motion pictures.

Deliberate emotional: Remember when you were given a Where’s Waldo? book and told to look for the guy with glasses, a red-and-white-striped shirt, and a matching hat? After a seemingly endless search, “Aha!”—you found him and smiled with satisfaction. Deliberate emotional creativity refers to the experience of such an “aha” moment, typically associated with a positive emotion. As with deliberate cognitive creativity, the VMPFC’s attentional network is involved. However, instead of connecting directly to perceptual and long-term memory areas, attentional resources are directed to emotional structures in the limbic system. Studies have recently shown that the “aha” moment is precisely correlated with significant activity in the amygdala,[33] a structure known for its role in emotional learning. [34] So next time you look for Waldo, you’ll remember how pleasant it felt to find him in the past, and that will keep you motivated to continue searching.

Spontaneous cognitive: Otherwise known as the “eureka” moment, this type of creativity typically occurs suddenly when one has left the problem-solving context and directed attention to a completely different task. Here, the dopamine-rich basal ganglia of the brain, involved in the execution of automatic behaviors, [35] operate outside conscious awareness. Searching in vain for novel solutions forces you into a mental gridlock. Until the problem is temporarily removed from conscious awareness, new perspectives cannot be gained. [11] As you perform an unrelated activity, the PFC connects information in novel ways via unconscious mental processing.

Spontaneous emotional: Usually referred to as an epiphany, this type of creativity occurs when neural activity in the amygdala is spontaneously represented in working memory. Given the biological significance of emotional events, these types of moments tend to be intense. While no apparent knowledge is necessary, specific skills may be required for these insights to come to fruition.

What Do We Know About Spontaneous Musical Creativity in the Mind/Brain?

Brain-imaging studies in music cognition have focused primarily on the neurobiology of music processing and the perception of emotion. [36] Until recently, researchers neglected the psychological and neuroscientific study of the process of musical composition in both longitudinal case studies of musical scoring and studies of instantaneous, real-time creation. In 2007, researchers began to explore spontaneous improvised musical material as it is generated, perceived, and communicated among musicians.

From the jazz artist’s perspective, improvisation refers to the dynamic moment at which the artist employs immediate decision-making as new ideas are conceived of and then integrated into the ever-evolving musical output. [1] In regards to cognitive processes, improvisation can thus be defined as the spontaneous generation, selection, and execution of novel auditory-motor sequences. Since musicians must generate a potentially infinite number of contextually meaningful musical phrases by combining a finite set of notes and rhythms, researchers consider musical improvisation an optimal way to study the neural underpinnings of spontaneous creative artistic invention. While the study of real-time musical improvisation has been made easier with the use of custom-built, nonferromagnetic piano keyboards, noise-canceling microphones, electrostatic headphones, and contemporary functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques, experimenting with such a hallmark of artistic creation is no easy task. The conductors of music experiments must find just the right balance of experimental control and ecological validity.

So far, researchers at three laboratories have specifically examined highly constrained simple melodic improvisations by classically trained pianists. [37-39] Their investigations have found that the generation of musical structures implicates the sensorimotor and classic perisylvian language cortices (Wernicke’s and Broca’s semantic and syntactic processing areas), and the PFC, in particular the DLPFC.

Asking the same neurocognitive question of what distinguishes improvisatory from memorized behavior, researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braun explored improvisation with professional jazz pianists. [40] Instead of improvising over predetermined melodies with a fixed number of notes, participants either freely improvised to the auditory accompaniment of a prerecorded jazz quartet or reproduced memorized jazz sequences. Improvisation, in comparison to the production of overlearned material, was characterized by widespread activation in sensorimotor and language areas. Furthermore, activity observed in the PFC included both deactivation of the DLPFC and lateral orbital (LOFC) regions and focal activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). In comparison to the more musically constrained generation studies, this study reveals a state of free-flowing complex musical ideas that may result from the combination of internally generated self-expression (via the MPFC) and attenuation of activity in the DLPFC. This observation is additionally intriguing given that altered states of mind such as dreaming, meditation, and hypnosis have produced such “turning-off” of executive functioning. [41]

We have all most likely experienced moments of intense focused concentration at a task followed by a pleasurable aftereffect. Psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmiháyli and colleagues proposed and developed the theoretical construct of a flow state, commonly referred to as being in the zone, to describe precisely that optimal experience that occurs during a highly motivated creative (but not necessarily artistic) act. [7, 42] Researchers have made applications and correlations not only to music performance, [43] but also to athletic competition. [44] Research investigating possible links between musical creativity and Csíkszentmiháyli’s concept of flow, however, are sparse in regards to behavioral data, except for a study on long-term group composition, [45] and lacking in neuroimaging data, with the exception of Limb and Braun’s study. [40]

If one characteristic of a generative creative and artistic act is a state of flow, then musical genres other than jazz ought not only to be associated with generalized heightened activity in all sensory modalities, but also to exhibit an equivalent mental state. As with the Limb and Braun study, [40] Mónica López-González and colleagues sought to identify the neural substrates underlying the spontaneous generation of rhyming sequences in hip-hop performance. [46] Freestyle rapping, like jazz, involves the rapid, real-time generation of lyrics to the accompaniment of a rhythmic beat. During López-González’s study, using a similar methodology to that of Limb and Braun, professional freestyle rappers performed to rhythmic accompaniment as they either spontaneously improvised lyrics or recited a pre-memorized novel rap. In line with the other generation studies, improvisation, compared to nongenerative recitation, revealed heightened activity in the superior MPFC, classical language areas, sensorimotor cortices, and the cerebellum. Deactivation was observed in LOFC regions. In sum, the DLPFC and multiple sensory and language areas appear to be associated with the encoding and consequent implementation of novel auditory-motor sequences germane to the act of spontaneous musical improvisation.

Perception of Improvised Material

An alternative to investigating what occurs in the brain during real-time generation of novel material is researching its perception. Are listeners of jazz improvisation capable of evaluating offhand such spontaneously improvised material? Evaluation of improvised material can be important for aesthetics, enjoyment, and economic purposes; entire jazz competitions and festivals depend on this capacity of experienced judges and inexperienced, eager listeners.

The single study that has been done to date made three observations after testing musically trained listeners attempting to differentiate between improvised and rehearsed jazz piano solos. [47] First, judgment ratings revealed that experienced jazz musicians are relatively accurate at classifying performances as improvisations instead of rehearsed imitations. Second, fMRI data revealed correlations between listening to improvisations and increased activity in the amygdala, a structure in the limbic system also implicated in the processing of behavioral uncertainty. [48] Third, fMRI data also revealed that activity in the pre-SMA, superior frontal gyrus, rostral cingulate cortex zone, Broca’s area, and motor-related areas (e.g., the cerebellum, primary motor area, and precentral gyrus) was stronger when people listened to melodies judged as improvised than when they listened to those judged as imitated. These data reveal an apparent cortical overlap between trained musicians listening to novel improvisatory material and those creating it. [37-40, 46]

These observations provide strong evidence that musicians are far from passive listeners. Given personal experience with the art form in question, they engage in action simulation. The extent to which these findings are generalizable to nonmusicians remains to be determined. However, given the amygdala’s sensitivity to cues in musical uncertainty in the performers’ behavior, researchers can hypothesize that even nonmusicians appreciate performance fluctuations such as the timing between keystrokes and the force applied to each keystroke, both prominent auditory features for identifying musical spontaneity. [49] Perhaps witnessing firsthand those unfolding moments of creation makes going to a live jazz performance or searching for that one classical LP recording so rewarding.

Communication of Improvised Material

Jazz performance is not typically a solo venture. Provided that it is an interactive live musical discourse among multiple performers, two intriguing questions arise. First, is this musical conversation manifested neurologically, given shared cognitive networks between music and language processing? [50, 51] Second, given the interactive nature of the task, is a state such as Csíkszentmiháyli’s flow possible?

In an fMRI study at Johns Hopkins, Gabriel Donnay and colleagues explored a typical jazz improvisation convention known as trading fours, whereby two or more musicians alternate solos of four-measure phrases for arbitrary lengths of time. [52] Results revealed that improvisation during the trading fours task was associated with activation in Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, sensorimotor areas, and the lateral PFC and deactivation in the medial frontal PFC. With only a single existing fMRI study exploring the perception of interlocutors during natural language discourse, [53] this study adds to the nascent research hypothesizing that conversation, linguistic or musical, involves a complex network of brain regions that includes the PFC, perisylvian language cortices, and sensorimotor areas. Additionally, given the memory demands for the expected melodic and rhythmic consistency within a trading fours improvisatory task, complete entering into “the zone” may not be an applicable option in such a context. These hypotheses, of course, are but the beginning steps along this line of inquiry.

The Future of the Neuroscience of Artistic Creativity

The empirical study of artistic creativity paves the way for both a better and a more appreciative understanding of the psychological and neural processes underlying a fundamental aspect of human cognition. Although recent scientific work has not yet taken full advantage of its interdisciplinary potential, researchers have implemented a conceptual framework, and cognitive neuropsychologists are slowly beginning to break this optimal human experience into its constituent parts. It is clear even from the minimal studies available within musical creativity that creativity can neither be localized to a single area in the brain nor boxed into a single process phenomenon.

Although researchers are only beginning to uncover the neural substrates of spontaneous invention, no mention has been made about how creative behavior interacts with aesthetic judgment or emotion. Given humans’ constant evaluations of the results of creative thinking and the effects it has on our consequent behaviors, it is reasonable to assume that studying the effects of emotion during creation may be another piece to the puzzle of what, how, and why we create. After all, a general social assumption is that emotion guides much of artistic creation. This is yet another empirical question.

Finally, even within the few active years of research on creativity there has been an obvious bias toward studying musical creativity. But music is not the only art form that engages creative thinking and states of flow, provokes emotional responses, has aesthetic value and sociocultural significance, and is widely produced. The most immediate challenge for the field is to bridge into visual and other performing arts in order to formulate a more generalizable theory on artistic creativity.

This article originally appeared in Cerebrum.

Featured image: Nick White/Taxi/Getty Images



1. Berliner, P. F. (1994). Thinking in jazz: The infinite art of improvisation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

2. Bergson, H. L. (1911). Matter and memory (N. M. Paul & W. S. Palmer, Trans.). London: George Allen and Unwin.

3. Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association, Pennsylvania State College.

4. Guilford, J. P. (1956). The structure of intellect. Psychological Bulletin, 53(4), 267-293.

5. Guilford, J. P. (1957). Creative abilities in the arts. Psychological Review, 64(2), 110-118.

6. Bunge, M. (1962). Intuition and science. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

7. Csíkszentmiháyli, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow and in work and play. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

8. Bastick, T. (1982). Intuition: How we think and act. Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

9. Richardson, C. P. (1983). Creativity research in music education: A review. Council for Research in Music Education, 74(83), 1-21.

10. Gardner, H. (1993). Creating minds: An anatomy of creativity seen though the lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York: Basic Books.

11. Finke, R. A. (1996). Imagery, creativity, and emergent structure. Consciousness and Cognition, 5, 381-393.

12. Boden, M. A. (1998). Creativity and artificial intelligence. Artificial Intelligence, 103, 347-356.

13. Simonton, D. K. (2000). Cognitive, personal, developmental, and social aspects. American Psychologist, 55(1), 151-158.

14. Dietrich, A. (2004). The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 11(6), 1011-1026.

15. Pressing, J. (1988). Improvisation: Methods and models. In J. Sloboda (Ed.), Generative processes in music: The psychology of performance, improvisation, and composition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

16. Smith, S. M., Ward, T. B., & Finke, R. A. (Eds.). (1995). The creative cognition approach. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

17. Peretz, I. (2001). The biological foundations of music. In E. Dupoux (Ed.), Language, brain, and cognitive development: Essays in honor of Jacques Mehler. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

18. Koelsch, S., & Siebel, W. A. (2005). Toward a neural basis of music perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(12), 578-584.

19. Thaut, M. H. (2009). The musical brain: An artful biological necessity. Karger Gazette: Music and Medicine, 70, 2-4.

20. Dissanayake, E. (1974). A hypothesis of the evolution of art from play. Leonardo, 7, 211-217.

21. Dissanayake, E. (2009). The artification hypothesis and its relevance to cognitive science, evolutionary aesthetics, and neuroaesthetics. Cognitive Semiotics, 5, 148-173.

22. Dissanayake, E. (2011). In the beginning, evolution created religion and the arts. The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture, 2, 64-81.

23. Vogeley, K., Kurthen, M., Falkai, P., & Maier, W. (1999). Essential functions of the human self model are implemented in the prefrontal cortex. Consciousness & Cognition, 8, 343-363.

24. Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Putnam.

25. Shallice, T., & Burgess, W. (1991). Deficits in strategy application following frontal lobe damage in man. Brain, 114, 727-741.

26. Frith, C. D., & Dolan, R. (1996). The role of the prefrontal cortex in higher cognitive functions. Cognitive Brain Research, 5, 175-181.

27. Baddeley, A. (1996). Exploring the central executive. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 49(A), 5-28.

28. Fuster, J. M. (1995). Temporal processing: Structure and function of the human prefrontal cortex. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 769, 173-181.

29. Posner, M. (1994). Attention: The mechanism of consciousness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 91, 7398-7403.

30. Dehaene, S., & Naccache, L. (2001). Toward a cognitive science of consciousness: Basic evidence and a workspace framework. Cognition, 79, 1-37.

31. Damasio, A. R. (2001). Some notes on brain, imagination and creativity. In K. H. Pfenninger & V. R. Shubik (Eds.), The Origins of Creativity Oxford: Oxford University Press.

32. Lhermitte, F. (1983). “Utilization behaviour” and its relation to lesions of the frontal lobes. Brain, 106, 237-255.

33. Ludmer, R., Dudai, Y., & Rubin, N. (2011). Uncovering camouflage: Amygdala activation predicts long-term memory of induced perceptual insight. Neuron, 69, 1002-1014.

34. Hamann, S. B., Ely, T. D., Grafton, S. T., & Kilts, C. D. (1999). Amygdala activity related to enhanced memory for pleasant and aversive stimuli. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 289–293.

35. Ashby, G. F., Isen, A. M., & Turken, A. U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106, 529-550.

36. Peretz, I., & Zatorre, R. J. (2005). Brain organization for music processing. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 89-114.

37. Bengtsson, S. L., Csíkszentmiháyli, M., & Ullén, F. (2007). Cortical regions involved in the generation of musical structures during improvisation in pianists. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(5), 830-842.

38. Berkowitz, A. L., & Ansari, D. (2008). Generation of novel motor sequences: The neural correlates of musical improvisation. NeuroImage, 41, 535-543.

39. de Manzano, Ö., & Ullén, F. (2011). Goal-independent mechanisms for free response generation: Creative and pseudo-random share neural substrates. NeuroImage, 59, 772-780.

40. Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous music performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS ONE, 3(2), 2-9.

41. Dietrich, A. (2002). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and Cognition, 12, 231-256.

42. Csíkszentmiháyli, M., & Csíkszentmiháyli, I. S. (Eds.). (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

43. de Manzano, Ö., Theorell, T., Harmat, L., & Ullén, F. (2010). The psychophysiology of flow during piano playing. Emotion, 10(3), 301-311.

44. Young, J. A., & Pain, M. D. (1999). The zone: Evidence of a universal phenomenon for athletes across sports. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, 1(3), 21-30.

45. MacDonald, R., Byrne, C., & Carlton, L. (2006). Creativity and flow in musical composition: An empirical investigation. Psychology of Music, 34(3), 292-306.

46. López-González, M., Sachs, M., Jiradevjong, P., & Limb, C. J. (in prep). Neural correlates of improvisation in freestyle rapping.

47. Engel, A., & Keller, P. E. (2011). The perception of musical spontaneity in improvised and imitated jazz performances. Frontiers in Psychology, 2(83), 1-13.

48. Singer, T., Critchley, H. D., & Preuschoff, K. (2009). A common role of insula in feelings, empathy and uncertainty. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13, 334–340.

49. Keller, P. E., Weber, A., & Engel, A. (2011). Practice makes too perfect: Fluctuations in loudness indicate spontaneity in musical improvisation. Music Perception, 29(1), 109-114.

50. Koelsch, S., Gunter, T. C., von Cramon, D. Y., Zysset, S., Lohmann, G., & Friederici, A. D. (2002). Bach speaks: A cortical ‘language-network’ serves the processing of music. NeuroImage, 17, 956-966.

51. Brown, S., Martinez, M. J., & Parsons, L. M. (2006). Music and language side by side in the brain: A PET study of the generation of melodies and sentences. European Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 2791-2803.

52. Donnay, G., Jiradevjong, P., & Limb, C. J. (in prep).

53. Caplan, R., & Dapretto, M. (2001). Making sense during conversation: An fMRI study. Neuroreport, 12(16), 3625-3632.

Creativity Components – The Creativity Post

Creativity is comprised of four factors. Just remember this equation: Creativity = Surprise + Originality + Beauty + Utility.

Today I want to talk about the components of creativity or the underlying factors of the creative process. One way to approach the problem is by looking at how we measure or evaluate a creative product.

Creativity is sometimes broken up into divergent thinking and convergent thinking; though I argue that essentially same processes are involved in both.

Divergent thinking is measured using Torrance test of creative thinking (TTCT). TTCT consists of both verbal and figural parts. Divergent thinking is also measured by Guilford’s Alternate uses task in which one has to come up with as many uses as possible for a common household items (like brick).

These creativity test results are scored keeping in mind a number of different creativity criteria. The most common (common to all of the above) criteria are:

1. Flexibility: This captures the ability to cross boundaries and make remote associations. This is measured by number of different categories of ideas generated.

2. Originality: This measures how statistically different or novel the ideas are compared to a comparison group. This is measured as number of novel ideas generated.

3. Fluency: This captures the ability to come up with many diverse ideas quickly. This is measured by the total number of ideas generated.

4. Elaboration: This measures the amount of detail associated with the idea. Elaboration has more to do with focussing on each solution/idea and developing it further.

Convergent thinking is measured by tests like remote associations test or insight problems. These problems are solved when you apply one of the methods below:

1. Make unique association between parts of the problem. This looks again similar to flexibility or how fluid is your categorisation schema enabling you to think out of the box and not be limited by typical categories or associations.

2. Take a novel approach (and not the typical approach) to problem solving. To me, this again looks similar to originality.

3. See problem from a different perspective. To me this looks like how quickly you can adopt multiple perspectives – the speed with which you can take alternate perspectives and is similar to fluency.

Creativity is also defined as coming up with something that is both novel and useful. At which point I am reminded of a quote by Oscar Wilde: “We can forgive man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” I understand Wilde to mean that art need not be useful or fulfill the criteria of utility, but is more measured by whether it fulfils the criterion of aesthetics or beauty. As long as one considers art as an integral part of creativity, I think we need to make room for beauty as part of defining what is creative: creativity = utility + beauty + novelty.

Now, to me novelty itself can be either because the thing in purview is really new or original or it can be familiar yet enigmatic (like Monalisa’s smile) and thus be surprising, or novel/ captivating in that sense.

Thus the modified equation looks like: creativity = surprise + originality + beauty + utility

Taken together I argue that these criteria/strategies/definitions that are used to measure and define creativity and solve creative problems, also hint at the underlying factor structure of creativity.

I propose that creativity is made of four factors:

1. The first factor is SURPRISE: whether one produces something that continues captivating attention, even though it becomes familiar over time. This may result from rare and remote association of ideas or a recombination process that brings familiar things together in an unfamiliar/unexpected way. This is the ability to think beyond conventional boundaries or categories, loosen up the associations and make remote associations between and within categories. This is also related to flexibility with which you can walk across categories and disciplines. An example might be Mona Lisa by Da Vinci or putting a urinal in an art gallery.

2. The second factor is ORIGINALITY: whether one produces something that is really unique and novel and unheard of before. This is creativity that is not just combinatorial but perhaps associated with transforming and transcending. As pre Pribram novelty is a result of new rearrangements of old ideas. If the first factor is about combination, this may be thought of as permutation or reordering. This is related to originality scores. An example might be cubism by Picasso where the face/familiar objects are rearranged, sort of.

3. The third factor is BEAUTY: whether one produces something that is appealing and aesthetically satisfying. Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder and is related to subjective preferences. Identifying beauty is a fast and frugal process and as per one conception, we find something beautiful, if we can process it easily (that is why average faces are more beautiful- ease of processing). This is related to fluency scores or the ease with which you can ideate. Expressionisms by Monet et al looks beautiful because it’s easy on eyes.

4. The fourth factor is of UTILITY: whether one produces something that is useful. As evident from the alternate uses task the utility of something is ambiguous and context dependent and yet measured objectively and not subjectively. Creativity is the ability to deal with this inherent ambiguity, be comfortable with it and look at things from multiple simultaneous perspectives to find useful contexts in which to use/ apply it. This is the ability to see if the solution actually solves the problem. Also the ability to elaborate an idea and add details to it, so as to make it useful/ relevant. Here, one can focus on one stream of thought/ idea and take it to logical conclusion, adding details and making it complex. The Miniature art of India, that has elaborate details, is an example of this form, and is useful in reconstructing history.

To put in simple words, creativity is generation of new, unexpected, likeable and useful/complex ideas/ things etc. Creativity happens if something ‘stands out’ from the crowd.

To take an analogy, in many psychological tasks, a stimulus stands out, if it is ‘surprising, novel, rare or complex’. Similarly, a creative product stands out if it is surprising, original, aesthetic (rarity is linked to beauty in some accounts- the rarer it is, the more beautiful/ art-valued it is) and useful (sufficiently complex/’designed’ to be useful).

I have also earlier alluded to Blind Variation and Selective Retention (BVSR) theory of creativity.

As per my latest thinking, factors 1 and 2, unexpected recombination (surpisability) and new permutations/ transformations/ mutations (originality) lead to blind variations that lead to novel products/ ideas. These are then selected using the lens and criterion of Beauty and Utility, the remaining two factors. Akin to sexual selection, factor 3 or beauty or subjective aesthetic preferences drive the selection process in this case. Akin to natural selection, factor 4 or utility or objective adaption criterion drives selection by this means.

Together the 2 factors that create variation (recombination/ mutations) and the 2 factors that select as per subjective and objective criterions (sexual-preferences (context-invariant) based/ natural- utility/fitness (context sensitive) based) ensure that creative products are original and surprising, as well as beautiful and useful.

Note: Some parts of the above ideas were developed and elaborated in my earlier Psychology Today blog and The Mouse Trap posts.

Author: Sandeep Gautam

Sandeep Gautam Column: The Muses and the Furies The thin line dividing madness and genius

Sandeep Gautam’s day job requires him to lead and manage software development teams in a networking and telecommunications giant; he moonlights as a psychology and neuroscience blogger at The Mouse Trap and the Psychology Today.

His interest areas span from Affective, Motivational and Personality research; to developmental and evolutionary unfolding of stages in a pre-determined order; to conceiving autism and psychosis as opposed on a continuum spectrum; to interest in creativity, genius , positive psychology and its application in school/ work settings.

Find out more at