Quirks & Quarks

Sting's brain on music offers scientists clues to what fuels creativity

Daydreams contribute to our creativity and intelligence but can go awry in mental illness, neuroscientists say.
Daniel Levitin shows Sting his cerebellum. (Owen Egan/McGill University)

Poets and philosophers have pondered the quiet, contemplative times of reflection in our lives. Now neuroscientists are finding our brains are really on fire during these restful periods when the brain daydreams.

People had assumed that since we're not doing anything during daydreams, the brain would be on idle.

In fact, a network of activity takes place during daydreams.

The neuroscientists say daydreams reflect the brain's default mode network — the attentional system when you're not in control of your thoughts and they drift loosely from one to another. It's when much of our creativity and problem solving occurs.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, an emeritus professor of neuroscience and music at McGill University in Montreal, saw it when he scanned the brain of Grammy winner Sting.

To study brain activity, Levitin uses EEG and a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, a machine that noninvasively measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

If your thoughts drift to daydreams of a vacation, neuroscientists say go for it. (Shutterstock)

When Sting composed in the scanner, Levitin was surprised to find the musician's visual cortex at the back of his head was active. Normally, scientists only see activity there when a subject is watching a movie or dreaming of a scene.

"I asked him about it and he said that when he composes music, he thinks of music as architecture as having different levels of structure and buttresses," Levitin tells Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "He thinks of it in a very visual, spatial way." 

Levitin says we're experiencing daydreams when the brain drifts as we read, as our eyes seem to get ahead of us and we don't know what we just took in, or when a driver misses an exit on the highway as the conscious part of the brain fails to pay attention.

Unbridled freedom of thought and spontaneity could be hugely important for creativity but it's only half the story, says Dr. Kalina Christoff. (University of British Columbia)

To neuroscientists, the daydream or default brain network isn't a physical place in the brain. It's a network of brain circuits connected together.

Like Levitin, Dr. Kalina Christoff is drawn to the study of how the default brain network fuels creativity. Christoff is a professor of psychology and Peter Wall scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Christoff first became interested in daydreams during her childhood growing up in Bulgaria. She spent the summers wandering through orchards and fields, where she found that letting her mind wander was extremely enjoyable.

As an adult, she realized this resting state of the brain baffled psychologists because they couldn't explain it.

Christoff says most creative people, regardless of the type of art, flip flop between spontaneously brain storming and appraising the results.

"Unbridled freedom of thought and spontaneity could be hugely important for creativity, but it's only half of what's necessary," Christoff says. "The other half is to be incredibly critically and in a very constrained way evaluate the products."

But when people show extremes in that range between freedom and constraints in their thoughts, mental illnesses can occur, Christoff says. 

A daydreaming brain: the yellow areas depict the default mode network from three different perspectives; the coloured fibres show the connections amongst each other and with the remainder of the brain. (Max Planck Institute for Human Development )

For instance, she says extreme freedom of thought correlates with the disordered thoughts of psychosis. In depression and obsession, thoughts are extremely constrained.

She says healthy, creative people reach those extremes, but they don't get stuck there.

In contrast in rumination, our thoughts become fixated on a particular worry, such as an argument with a friend.

Christoff collaborates with Dr. Zach Irving of the University of Virginia.

People with ADHD tend to have more creative achievements than their age-matched peers.- Dr. Zach Irving

Irving is an assistant professor of philosophy with a personal interest in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He was diagnosed as being on the spectrum for ADHD as an adult and was drawn to study how his mind works differently from others.

In ADHD, daydreams or mind wandering is exaggerated, Irving says. It can have costs in terms of not being able to concentrate in class, but it also has benefits.

"People with ADHD tend to have more creative achievements than their age-matched peers," Irving says.

He acknowledges there's been a bit of a pushback from some in the ADHD community with more severe forms who don't want the debilitating aspects of the illness to be characterized as a positive. It's important to consider how ADHD affects someone's life, Irving says.

"I've heard someone say that for someone who has ADHD, the hardest task is just doing your laundry, because you need to remember to do so many things in a sequence right after each other and that can be really hard. On the other hand to just sort of draw connections between a bunch of different papers that you read, that can actually be quite easy. It can be quite pleasant."

Irving sees the limitations of research that fails to distinguish between concepts like mind wandering and rumination. It's why he and Christoff published what he calls a dynamic framework for mind wandering in a recent issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

At her lab, Christoff continues to study how people talk their way through puzzles that have no obvious answer. The puzzles offer a non-technological way for her to explore how creativity relates to spontaneous thought.

Other neuroscientists are exploring how daydreams contribute to intelligence.

Last month, Christine Godwin, a PhD candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, published a study based on brain pattern measurements of more than 100 people who laid in a MRI machine.

Those who reported more frequent daydreams scored higher on intellectual and creative ability and had more efficient brain systems as measured in the MRI, Godwin found.