The brain behind an artist’s vision


Romit Majumder

fMRI slices of a jazz artist’s brain during musical improvisation.

  With the advancement of scientific technologies and methods, we have deciphered a lot about creativity. Yet, we are miles away from unravelling the secrets behind the thoughts that gave birth to some of the most magnificent creations of all time. The article helps us take a peek into the minds of some of the most creative-eccentric people and the physiology behind their creations.

“The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret” - Salvador Dali   In the book, The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin insisted that variability is the greatest determinant of evolution and is highly prominent in structures that evolve fast. In human beings, the brain is the most variable and actively evolving organ. However, variability cannot be constrained behind bars of physical components such as well-defined segments of the brain. Rather, we scale it with generalized differences like intelligence, responsiveness, creative abilities, skills and other intellectual properties. Art is also an expression of this variability [1].

  Art is a connection between people and their emotions, with the artist being a universal vehicle for expressing emotions. Possession of a creative mind can open up gateways to achieving tremendous success in personal and professional life. The neurological study of an artist's brain will not only define the source of one of the richest subjective experiences that we can perceive but also identify the neural mechanisms underlying creative ideation [2].

  Conventional ideology defines creativity as a sudden gust of wind that ushers in brilliant ideas. In reality, it is the exact opposite and a rather deep-seated neurological phenomenon. Musical, verbal, and visuospatial creativity is directly mapped to different foci (centres) within the brain itself. Multiple studies have pointed out the prefrontal cortex to be one of the principal areas for the induction of creativity. Recent studies have suggested that creativity is classified into three levels based on novelty, observational learning, and innovative behaviour. Level one is composed of both the ability to recognize novelty and identify it (mesolimbic dopaminergic system). Level two is linked to observational learning, which ranges vastly from emulation to the cultural transmission of creative behaviour. This might also be dependent on the cerebellum and the prefrontal cortex. Level three is all about innovation and correlates to the explicit recognition of a distinct object marked by novelty and might also be partially reliant upon the prefrontal cortex[3].

  Several recent studies have unveiled a missing link between the previously mentioned dopaminergic (DA) system and creativity. The DA system acts by coordinating the integration of information via the selective potentiation of neural pathways and circuits. Further investigations have revealed the existence of a dual pathway model of DA[4]. This includes the nigrostriatal pathway (creative drives: mood, motivation, emotion), and the mesocortical pathway (executive functions: shifting mental state, response inhibition). The nigrostriatal pathway is exclusively a bilateral dopaminergic pathway, connecting the dorsal striatum (located in the forebrain) to the substantia nigra pars compacta (located in the midbrain). Similarly, the mesocortical pathway also being a dopaminergic pathway connects the prefrontal cortex with the ventral tegmentum (located close to the midline on the floor of the midbrain). Both these pathways modulate creativity through the dual-process model. The dual-process model is an optimally balanced state between cognitive flexibility and persistence. Similarly, there remains a link between positive mood and creativity. This can also be directed to the nigrostriatal pathway.

  So, when we observe creative artists talking about creativity, they might be contradicting how creativity works. Keeping aside the notions that project creativity as a “divine gift from God”, the article has presented a perspective of how this actually works. It indicates that what we see is just the tip of the iceberg, and the physiology of creativity itself needs a lot of fecundity to decipher.


  1. Zeki S (2001) Artistic creativity and the brain. Science (80). 293 (5527): 51–52.
  2. Khalil R, Godde B, Karim AA (2019) The link between creativity, cognition, and creative drives and underlying neural mechanisms. Front. Neural Circuits. 13 : 18. DOI: 10.3389/fncir.2019.00018.
  3. Kaufman AB, Butt AE, Kaufman JC, Colbert-White EN (2011) Towards a neurobiology of creativity in nonhuman animals. J. Comp. Psychol. 125 (3): 255–272. DOI: 10.1037/a0023147.
  4. Grace AA 2010. (2010) Dopamine Modulation of Forebrain Pathways and the Pathophysiology of Psychiatric Disorders. In: Dopamine Handbook. Oxford University Press; 2010.

Romit Majumder is a Ph.D. student at the Oxidative Stress and Free Radical Biology Laboratory, Department of Physiology, University of Calcutta. Romit loves to capture his world in frames and shows avid interest in new gadgets and nextgen technology. He is also a hardcore fan of research concerning the reversal of senescence and computational biochemistry.

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