How Happiness and Creativity Are Measured in the Brain

The nitty-gritty science behind happiness

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Research has found that listening to happy music helps to enhance your creativity. What’s occurring in the brain during these moments of creativity, though? Professor Vishton explains.

Man singing while listening to music in his headphones
Photo By Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock

Creativity and Brain Function

Some of the best work on creativity and brain function comes from the lab of Mark Beeman, who studied brain activation during a Remote Associates Test (RAT)—when you’re given three words and must come up with a fourth word closely associated with all three that can form common phrases with each. Participants in his tasks would try to solve a long series of these problems while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner or while wearing an  electroencephalograph (EEG) cap.

An fMRI precisely assesses which areas of the brain are activated during a creative task. It does this based on measurements of blood flow to those regions. 

The EEG contains a large number of sensors that are placed on the scalp. These sensors pick up the tiny electrical activations made in the brain under the region of each particular sensor.

The fMRI is very good in terms of spatial resolution—it can resolve changes down to a cubic millimeter of brain tissue—but not very good temporally. Changes in blood flow don’t occur for several seconds after an area becomes active. 

An EEG has the opposite characteristics. It’s not so great in terms of spatial resolution. 

The sensors pick up the average signal produced by thousands of neurons located near the sensor. Even neurons located many millimeters away from the sensor can exert a small influence on the activity that it picks up. 

An EEG, however, is excellent in terms of temporal resolution. It can record changes that take place within as little as a few milliseconds. Some of the best neuroimaging research involves a combination of these two techniques, as Beeman’s work illustrates.

Brain Activation during Insight

Participants in both tasks would solve the problems while holding a button box in their hands. Beeman was interested in that experience of insight that we all have when we’re trying to solve complex problems.

In Beeman’s studies, whenever participants had this creative insight experience, they would press the insight button. Beeman’s analysis of the brain imaging data revealed a particular region located in the anterior superior temporal gyrus of the right hemisphere. 

It became very active shortly before this moment of insight was indicated with the button press. This area is one of the outward bulges located at the very top of the right temporal lobe.

The cortex is like a thin, wrinkled sheet of neurons. Some of the wrinkles bulge out; we call a bump like this a gyrus

A valley in the wrinkled surface is called a sulcus. The area that Beeman identified is a gyrus located in the top of the right temporal lobe. It seems to be critical in developing creative insights.

The EEG data confirmed this finding. Three-tenths of a second before participants pushed that insight button, a burst of high frequency activity was emitted from this anterior superior temporal gyrus. 

The anterior superior temporal gyrus is associated with many tasks involved in integrating distant semantic relations and finding connections between information that’s only loosely related. These are the skills needed for the RAT and, generally, more so for creativity.

Happiness on the Brain

Why should happy music affect this region? Most research points to the relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic portions of the autonomic nervous system. 

When we find ourselves in threatening, potentially dangerous situations, we activate our sympathetic nervous system. This prepares our body for a potential fight or flight reaction, aimed at increasing the likelihood of survival. 

When we don’t sense a threat, our body activates the parasympathetic system and enters into what is often referred to as rest and digest mode of activity. Of course, we don’t just rest and digest in this mode. 

As we calmly consider problems, this parasympathetic system will tend to be activated. It might also be better to refer to it as a tend and befriend mode of processing.

The body diverts its resources to general maintenance activities that, while essential for long-term survival, aren’t particularly useful for battling or escaping from a threat. One of those rest and digest systems is general cortical activity, the activity associated with complex cognition and creative problem-solving. 

This sympathetic and parasympathetic system is often characterized in terms of its extreme responses. If an enormous, snarling tiger suddenly jumped in front of you, you might be terrified, and a fight-or-flight feeling would overcome you as the danger response took over your brain. 

When you’re a little stressed about something, a smaller, gentler version of that same fight or flight mode is engaged. When you feel happy, more of your resources are released into your brain as a whole.

One general piece of advice for boosting creativity that’s been supported by many different studies on brain function is to be happy. If you’re depressed, sad, distressed, anxious—anything but happy—your creative abilities seem to be compromised. 

Listening to happy music will boost your creativity while you listen to it and for at least a few minutes after, but, in general, everyday happiness will boost it on a more long-term basis. As you prepare to undertake a challenging task—one for which you want to marshal your most creative thinking—start by doing something that makes you happy.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.