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Brain scans revealed artists have more grey matter in parts of their brains
Artists have structurally different brains compared with non-artists, a study has found.
Participants’ brain scans revealed that artists had increased neural matter in areas relating to fine motor movements and visual imagery.
The research, published in NeuroImage, suggests that an artist’s talent could be innate.
But training and environmental upbringing also play crucial roles in their ability, the authors report.
As in many areas of science, the exact interplay of nature and nurture remains unclear.
Lead author Rebecca Chamberlain from KU Leuven, Belgium, said she was interested in finding out how artists saw the world differently.
“The people who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory,” she explained.
In their small study, researchers peered into the brains of 21 art students and compared them to 23 non-artists using a scanning method called voxel-based morphometry.
One artist who has practiced for many years is Alice Shirley – here is a detail of her Giant Lobster
These detailed scans revealed that the artist group had significantly more grey matter in an area of the brain called the precuneus in the parietal lobe.
“This region is involved in a range of functions but potentially in things that could be linked to creativity, like visual imagery – being able to manipulate visual images in your brain, combine them and deconstruct them” .
Alice Shirley – artist
“I had a very arty family. My mother was an art historian and my dad a photographer.
“I grew up surrounded by art and was encouraged to draw from a very young age, and I liked it so I did more of it. It was a combination of encouragement and enthusiasm that made me interested in pursuing art.
“It’s just in the blood.”
Participants also completed drawing tasks and the team looked at the relationship between their performance in this task and their grey and white matter.
A changing brain
Those better at drawing had increased grey and white matter in the cerebellum and also in the supplementary motor area – both areas that are involved with fine motor control and performance of routine actions.
Grey matter is largely composed of nerve cells, while white matter is responsible for communication between the grey matter regions.
But it is still not clear what this increase of neural matter might mean. From looking at related studies of other creative people, such as musicians, it suggests that these individuals have enhanced processing in these areas, Dr Chamberlain added.
“It falls into line with evidence that focus of expertise really does change the brain. The brain is incredibly flexible in response to training and there are huge individual differences that we are only beginning to tap into.”
Another author of the paper, Chris McManus from University College London, said it was difficult to distinguish what aspect of artistic talent was innate or learnt.
“We would need to do further studies where we look at teenagers and see how they develop in their drawing as they grow older – but I think [this study] has given us a handle on how we could begin to look at this.”
Commenting on the small sample size, Prof McManus said: “Since the results were statistically significant then clearly there was the power to find something, which almost by definition means it was large enough.
“And also of interest is that other people have also had hints at effects in similar locations. Obviously in an ideal world we’d like 1000 subjects, but that isn’t realistic. It’s always a compromise between cost, practicality and interest.”
No ‘right’ side
Ellen Winner of Boston College, US, who was not involved with the study, commented that it was very interesting research.
She said it should help “put to rest the facile claims that artists use ‘the right side of their brain’ given that increased grey and white matter were found in the art group in both left and right structures of the brain”.
“Only a prospective study could get at the question of innate structural brain differences that predispose people to become visual artists, and this kind of study has not been done as it would be very difficult and very expensive to carry out.”
Do you have to be intelligent to be creative? Can you learn to be more creative? In this episode, we speak with neuropsychologist Rex E. Jung, PhD, who studies intelligence, creativity and brain function. He discusses why – even if it sounds counterintuitive – intelligence and creativity may not have all that much in common.
Transcript of interview with Audrey and Rex Jung from the APA website.
Audrey Hamilton: Do you have to be intelligent to be creative? Can you really learn to be more creative? In this episode, we speak with one neuropsychologist who studies intelligence, creativity and brain function. He talks about why – even if it sounds counterintuitive – intelligence and creativity may not have all that much in common. I’m Audrey Hamilton and this is “Speaking of Psychology.”
Rex Jung is an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico and a practicing clinical neuropsychologist in Albuquerque. He studies both brain disease and what the brain does well – a field of research known as positive neuroscience. His research is designed to relate behavioral measures, including intelligence, personality and creativity to brain function and structure. He has published research articles across a wide-range of topics including traumatic brain injury, lupus, schizophrenia, intelligence and creativity. Welcome, Dr. Jung.
Rex Jung: Thank you, Audrey.
Audrey Hamilton: Could you first of all explain neuroimaging and tell our listeners how it helps researchers understand how people think and act?
Rex Jung: Sure. So, neuroimaging is the tool that we use to measure the brain and there’s lots of different neuroimaging techniques. I use three main neuroimaging techniques – the first that I learned in graduate school was magnetic resonance microscopy, which sounds kind of complicated. But, it is a technique that basically looks at the chemicals in your brain. It’s in a standard MRI machine like you would go to get your knee scanned. But, using some sophisticated techniques you can look at certain chemicals in the brain. Some of those chemicals are very involved in important neuronal processes. And we’ve correlated those with behavior.
A different technique is called diffusion tensor imaging, which allows us to look at water movement in the brain. And this is important because there’s lots of tubes going through your brain like the wires that connect up your computer to the Internet. And these tubes, called axons, are connecting up different processing modules of your brain and those have to be healthy. So, we can look at the health of those axons, those myelinated axons, the fatty sheath like the insulation that surrounds those tubes.
The third technique that we use is just structural magnetic resonance imaging and that allows us to look at the processing modules of the brain – the cortical thickness – the computers that are on the surface of the brain and how much or little of that you have on the surface of the brain. Those are the three main techniques that I use. There’s functional imaging, fMRI, that most people have heard of where you’re looking a blood flow, as well. Those are ways that we measure brain structure and function and this gives us the ability to do scientific measures that then we can correlate to behavioral measures in psychology.
Audrey Hamilton: Does being highly creative mean you’re also more intelligent?
Rex Jung: Not necessarily. There’s a controversy about this in the psychological literature and some people have found correlations between creativity and intelligence. They’re usually pretty low, this association. And some people make a lot of that, this low association. But usually, because this association between creativity and intelligence is low, it means that you don’t necessarily have to be intelligent to be creative. So, I spent over a decade studying intelligence. It’s one of the reasons I started studying creativity because it seemed like something distinctly different and interesting than intelligence, which I have studied. I work with very highly intelligent people in academia and scientists and not all of them are creative. Why is that? If they do go together I would be working with all of the creative people in my city in Albuquerque, but that wasn’t the case so creativity seemed to be something different.
Audrey Hamilton: Can a person learn to become more creative or simply gain intelligence?
Rex Jung: There are some tools and techniques that can help people to be more creative. We’re starting to learn more about creativity and it’s one of the things that I’m excited about in terms of creativity is that there might be ways to increase your creative capacity.
Intelligence unfortunately seems to be much more under tight genetic control. The genetic correlates of intelligence are high, like .75. So, if you have twins – they’re going to be identical twins – their correlation of their intelligence with one another is going to be very, very high. So that implies that the genetic involvement of that capacity is under much more tight control than the environment would be.
With creativity, we don’t have that information and I’m hopeful that you can modulate or modify creative cognition much more than intelligence. There are studies out there that have shown increases in intelligence scores of two, maybe three points on a particular measure, which are not particularly high. But those are also controversial. Some have been replicated. Some haven’t been replicated. And we really don’t see that in terms of intelligence. With creativity, there’s a pitched effort to try to increase creativity scores on some of these measures and we’re seeing some good initial results and I’m very hopeful about that.
Audrey Hamilton: How does the way a person’s brain works and is structured influence how creative or intelligent he or she is?
Rex Jung: The research that we’ve done shows that the brain organization of intelligence and creativity are quite different. So, when you think about those measures that I talked about, those neuroimaging measures, the brain of someone who is intelligent – think of bigger, better, stronger, faster – all the measures are pointing to higher integrity of the brain of someone who has high intelligence. So, the cortical mantle is thicker, the white matter, the wires are more myelinated, the water can travel faster and in a coherent direction, you have more of these certain chemicals that I was talking about.
Rex Jung: It’s beefed up, yes. So you can have a better organized brain.
With creativity, the story was different. In different regions of the brain, we were seeing weaker connections, thinner cortex and different levels of these same biochemicals. So, it was really clear from these studies that intelligence and creativity were different because we were seeing different pictures in the measures we were taking of the brain. But I tend to look at creativity and intelligence as two different kinds of reasoning. That creativity is kind of reasoning without all of the information present. So, call it abductive reasoning. But, you have hypothesis testing about how the world could work without all of the information present. So, you have to use abstraction and metaphor and stuff like that about this might look like this or this might be this way.
With intelligence, you’re using deductive reasoning, where it’s rule-based reasoning where a equals b and that’s the way it goes. You have a rule for how this relationship works. So, creativity and intelligence are probably different types of reasoning. Both are very adaptive, but they’re just different for different types of problems that you have to solve out in the world.
Audrey Hamilton: Is real creativity rare? How about genius?
Rex Jung: So, creativity is common and genius is a lot more rare than we would believe. The term genius gets thrown around a lot. But, I think genius is rare because that combination of brain organization where you have high fidelity, beefed up brain in certain regions and then kind of down regulated brain in other regions is really going to be kind of rare where that is present in the same brain. So, to have that back and forth between intelligence and creativity, the ability to do both of those reasoning processes well, where you can do first approximations, hypothesis testing, abstraction and then create a rule, a novel and useful rule out of nothing before is rare and that is true genius.
Audrey Hamilton: Well great. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Jung. It’s been very, very interesting.
Rex Jung: Great. Thank you, Audrey.
Harvard researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital reported that the practice of mindfulness meditation can physically alter regions of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.
The study, to be published in January 2015, in “Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging” indicates that the brain’s gray matter may change as a result of meditation.
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” said Sara Lazar, the study’s senior author. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Researchers measured MR images of participants brains during the eight-week “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” program, conducted by the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. Participants spent an average of 27 minutes in meditation during the program. The program was delivered through recorded audios and guided meditations.
Compared to measurements on MR scans of a control group who did not participate in the program, the participants’ brains showed an increase in gray-matter density in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the region of the brain associated with learning, introspection, memory and awareness.There also was a decrease in gray-matter density in the amygdala, the region associated with anxiety and stress. However, the Insula, a region of the brain thought to be associated with self-awareness according to earlier research, remained unchanged, and the researchers hypothesize that participants may have to meditate for longer periods of time before any change is noticed in this region.
It has been noted that meditation can reduce stress but according to Britta Hölzel, one of the authors, “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”
The researchers believe that these findings of physiological change can pave the wave for a better understanding and treatment of stress-related disorders. The study was supported by the BBC, National Institutes of Health and the Mind and Life Institute.