Friday, November 20, 2009

Musicians slightly crazy, but smarter?

Gibson, C., Folley, B. S., Park, Sohee (2008). Enhanced divergent thinking and creativity in musicians: A behavioral and near-infrared spectroscopy . Brain and Cognition, 69(2009), 162-169. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2008.07.009.

The purpose of this study was to examine creativity as demonstrated by divergent thinking and to link it to personality traits, intelligence (IQ), and activity in the frontal cortical regions of the brain, which have shown increased activity in association with creative (divergent) thinking.

Divergent thinking has long been seen as a component of creativity as it requires flexibility in thinking and problem solving, in particular, the ability to guide one’s thoughts without clearly defined parameters. Interestingly, in a previous study, people displaying more schizotypal personality traits also showed greater activity in the frontal cortical area of the brain, demonstrating a link between creativity and psychosis-proneness.

Musicians are seen as highly creative people, so the authors of the study recruited 20 classical music students and 20 non-musicians for two experiments. All participants were assessed for intelligence, handedness (fine motor skills in each hand), and verbal fluency. They also filled out questionnaires regarding creativity and schizotypal personality.

a) Remote Associates Test (RAT) – Participants were given three words and were asked to find another associated word. They could generate as many words as they want but there’s one correct answer.
b) Divergent Thinking Test (DTT) – Participants were asked to generate uses for objects alone and in combination with others. There was no time limit and they could come up with as many uses as they wanted.

EXPERIMENT #2: (used a subset of the original group: 8 musicians, 7 non-musicians)
Near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) was used to measure blood oxygenation changes in the frontal cortex during a modified DTT.

Musicians self-reported greater creative and schizotypal traits in the questionnaires. Musicians showed higher levels of divergent thinking and IQ (including verbal). There was no difference in handedness between groups. Musicians scored better on both the RAT and DTT. Musicians showed greater activity in both sides of the frontal cortex whereas non-musicians showed more activity in the left side.

This study, by the authors’ own account seems to provide greater credence to the idea that music makes you smarter. Musicians also seem to be more creative and think more ‘out-of-the-box’ than non-musicians. Perhaps a bit more disturbing is the link to psychosis-proneness, though musicians in this study did not achieve clinical levels. It’s also not the first time that higher IQ has been linked to mental health concerns (click here for an example).

Musical training certainly encourages an expansion of the imagination, and even without knowing that music causes activity in many areas of the brain, it’s easy to recognize the full-body involvement it calls for, not to mention the emotional element that factors into the equation. Divergent thinking may be an outcome of our need to draw from diverse thoughts and experiences----tactile, sensual, emotional, etc. It makes sense that the cognitive-perceptual part of the schizotypal questionnaire has to do with “perceptual aberrations and magical thinking”. I’m not sure what they mean by magical thinking, exactly, but what else to we do when we write, improvise, or interpret a piece, but conceptualize the world in ways that others may not?

I do wonder, however, whether musical training can cause a greater manifestation of these traits, or whether those predisposed to toward these traits and ways of thinking gravitate toward music and other arts.


Renee Kruisselbrink said...

One of the papers I researched covered this same issue from a different perspective, that of the importance of music education in children. In that paper, no definite conclusion could definitely be reached with respect to this.

I do think that one needs to be careful with the claim that musicians are smarter. Yes, the cortex of the brain has been found to be enlarged in areas of musician’s brains compared to non-musicians. But I think that if similar tests were carried out on a highly trained individual in any specialized area, this would be the case.

With respect to the actual experiment itself, some questions arise. It seems that a very small number of subjects were tested; more accurate results would be produced if it were undertaken on a larger scale. As well, it states that “musicians” were tested. Does that mean that they all played the same instrument at nearly the same level? There is a difference in the types of skill required by a jazz saxophone improviser, for instance, than a piano performer.

SarahRose Black said...

Myrtle’s observations of this interesting study are the same questions that were raised in my mind as I read her blog: are musicians predisposed to these so-called “schizotypal” traits and creative functions, or are these facets developed as a musician’s skills are developed? Either way, the connections are very interesting. To further this, the apparent link to psychosis-proneness is almost alarming. I wonder whether other artists have a similar predisposition, for example visual artists, dancers, actors, etc. It would seem that this is the case as so many artists struggle with mental health disorders. It would be interesting to find out if anyone has done research on preventative measures to hinder any possibility to become prone to psychosis. I would assume that if the research on connections between creativity and mental health is in its primary stages, research on how to stop or trigger these effects.
This particular area of research makes me think of Glenn Gould and his struggles with physical and mental health. Could his difficulties with anxiety and his various phobias be connected to his intensely creative and genius mind? If there had been some sort of preventative measure taken when he was alive, would he have had a longer, healthier life? Obviously it is fruitless to consider his particular life as an example, but perhaps in the future, scientists and researchers will be able to balance creative geniuses if it means a better quality of life. However, it’s possible that some people thrive on the “troubled artist” image! This leaves endless possibilities for future research.