MIOSM: The Creative Mind and Being Inspired

2011 Symposium2

It is hard to argue with the statement that music inspires us, though in my last post I discussed some conditions that music must meet to be inspirational. Today, I would like to share with you some of the science behind being inspired. What state does our brain like to be in for it to think creative thoughts? In what sorts of environments do we function most creatively? To answer these questions, I’m going to show you part of an article Rebecca Adams (no relation) wrote for The Huffington Post. In it, she summarizes pertinent research on how music and other aural stimuli affect our creative readiness and attitudes.

Obviously, it’s tricky to measure how a song can lead to increased creativity, but it’s clear that music can inspire higher brain functioning — provided you like the particular piece of music playing, that is. As long as music can get you in a positive mood and increase your arousal levels, you just might reap immediate cognitive benefits. Levitin explained that the field of neuroscience has identified two primary modes of brain operation: Either you’re paying attention to something very closely and you’re deeply engaged in a task, or you’re in “mind-wandering mode,” which involves daydreaming and flitting from thought to thought. As Levitin put it, “It’s a flood of different thoughts that feel unconnected and loose.”

It’s in this mode where almost all of our creativity happens, and where we’re able to come up with innovative solutions to problems. “You’ve probably had the experience that you had some problem you were trying to solve, either a work problem or a very practical problem,” Levitin told HuffPost. “You think about it for a while and you really direct your energy to think about it, and you come up with nothing. Then later in the afternoon, you’ve gone to walk the dogs or you’re grocery shopping — you’re not even thinking about it — and boom: The answer pops into your mind.”

Mind-wandering mode, which was discovered by neurologist Marcus Raichle at MIOSMWashington University in 2001, is the default mode of the brain. In other words, it’s the state the brain enters into most easily — which is why focusing on a task can be so mentally exhausting, or “metabolically expensive,” as Levitin put it.

On the other hand, you can stay in mind-wandering mode for a long time and still feel recharged and inspired to come up with imaginative ideas. You get into this mode by relaxing, letting go of the problem or task at hand, and voila — creativity ensues. Or at least that’s the idea. So what does this have to do with music?

“Music is one of the most exquisitely effective ways of allowing you to enter the mind-wandering mode,” said Levitin, who devotes a chapter of his forthcoming book, The Organized Mind, to this precise topic.

In 2011, Finnish researchers found that when our brains process the timbre of a song, our default-mode network (associated with mind-wandering mode) is activated, inspiring creativity. Such mental rewards don’t only apply to those in the arts: Even computer programmers have been shown to benefit from the positive, relaxing mood that music can induce.

Whether you realize it or not, you’re probably already using music for mood regulation. The song you play when you wake up in the morning is likely quite different from the song you put on after a breakup. Taking the time to relax to your favorite music can not only complement your mood, but it can also unlock any mental barriers to your imagination.

“The ‘right’ music — meaning, the right music for you at a particular point in time, because it’s subjective and idiosyncratic — pushes you into this mind-wandering state,” said Levitin. “You relax and you let your thoughts flow from one to another, and that’s how you get into creativity.”

When it comes to background music, volume is key…

Most of us don’t simply listen to music to relax or prepare for a task. Rather, we listen to music while studying or working.

In 2012, Schellenberg conducted a study on background music and concluded that it seemed to have no effect on cognitive function, unless it was too loud or too fast and therefore distracting. Another 2012 study by different researchers found that exposure to a moderate level of ambient noise — say around 70 decibels — enhances abstract thinking and performance on creative tasks, compared to low (50 dB) and high (85 dB) levels of noise. (According to the American Tinnitus Association, 70 dB is about as loud as a washing machine, while 50 dB is comparable to rainfall and 85 dB is about the noise equivalent of “average traffic.”)

…and so is the tempo.

In 2013, the music-streaming service Spotify commissioned research on the benefits of studying with background music. Lead researcher Emma Gray, a clinical psychologist at the British CBT & Counseling Service, found that it was important to choose the “right” music — in this case upbeat music with 50-80 beats per minute. This can include classical pieces, like Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” and contemporary pop like Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” or Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” Once again, this is intended to boost arousal.

While we take these findings with a grain of salt, we’d also guess that if you listen to an upbeat song you like, it probably won’t hurt your creativity. And who knows? It might just work for you.

Both Schellenberg and Levitin agree that music will have different effects on your brain and behavior depend on how it makes you feel. Want to be alert and focused? Try an upbeat song that puts you in a good mood, whether it’s Mozart or Miley. Want to step away from a problem and relax in order to find a solution? Play anything you like — and don’t dismiss those sad songs you like to mope around to.

“When we hear sad music, it allows us to empathize with the composer and the musician and makes us feel connected to them,” said Levitin. This empathy, he said, can allow individuals to glean creative insights they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Adams, R. (2014). Here’s proof music can do more than just make you feel good, The Huffington Post, Huffpost Healthy Living.


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