Thursday, January 25, 2007

Creativity and the Brain

Last night I saw Bobby McFerrin in concert, accompanied by 12-singer Voicestra. Those 12 voices included well-known and great voices, like that of Janis Siegel, one of the original singers in the Manhattan Transfer. As the program stated, "Voicestra serves as rich compositional palate for Bobby McFerrin's expeditions into the musical universe." Every single rendition we saw on the stage was totally improvised, thoroughly entertaining, original, and energizing. For those of you who may not know Bobby McFerrin, he started his career with that very famous tune, "Don't Worry Be Happy" and has gone on to become one of the most original musicians in the world, easily moving from classical to opera to jazz to any other kind of music and using his voice as a musical instrument. Improvisation is clearly his sweet spot. He even included the audience in some of the improvisations. My advice: travel for miles and miles to get a ticket to a Bobby McFerrin concert!

As I watched the energy and expertise and great entertainment on the stage, I couldn't help but think about the part that creativity plays in brain health.

And along those lines--thanks to Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily for pointing me to recent research by Eviatar and Just that looked at how the brain processes irony and metaphor. I think we need creative skills to figure out language puzzles like metaphors and irony. Using fMRI studies, the researchers discovered that our brains process common metaphors and ironic statement differently from ordinary language, going beyond the usual language centers (usually on the left side of the brain if you're right-handed) to include different areas on both sides of the brain. For reference, regular literal language all gets translated in the usual language centers. I'm not surprised, given the research that has already shown that creative endeavors and creative people use many parts of the brain for creative expression.

I suspect that is why creative expression gets good marks for keeping our brain healthy and fit and reducing the probabilities of Alzheimer's and dementia. I'm just trying to visualize the fMRIs of McFerrin and Voicestra's brains during that concert: lots of big splashes of color all over both sides, I suspect. I also wonder what happened to our brains in the audience as we watched this creativity in process. We were not passive. We jumped at the chance to interact when McFerrin pointed to us. I bet our brains were pretty busy, too (on both sides).

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