alpha waves
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The stronger your alpha waves, the better your improvising
Need to get creative? A type of brainwave has been linked to creativity, and the more synchronised these are, the higher the quality of your creative output.

Joel Lopata at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and his colleagues found this out by asking 22 pianists to listen to, play back, or improvise jazz melodies.

During these tasks, the team monitored the electrical activity in each person's pre-frontal cortex - a region of the brain that orchestrates our thoughts and goals. When groups of neurons send signals at the same time, this creates a wave of electrical activity that can be picked up using EEG caps. Different types of waves have been associated with different mental states - delta waves are detectable during deep sleep, for instance, whereas beta waves are a sign that someone is analysing something critically.

Alpha brainwaves, which have a frequency of around 7 to 14 Hertz, have previously been linked to coming up with creative ideas, such as answering questions like "name as many original uses for a mop". When the team analysed the brainwaves of the pianists, they found that these waves become more synchronised - more neurons fire at the same time - when a person is being more creative. But they only saw this in those who have had formal improvisation training.

Great Improvisations

Among the formally-trained improvisers, alpha waves became more synchronised when they played back music they had previously heard, and even more synchronised when they were actively being creative and improvising their own melodies.

When expert musicians listened to these improvisations, the ones they rated as the best melodies were found to be those linked to the highest levels of synchronisation seen during the experiment.

But no increase in alpha wave synchronisation was seen in pianists who had improvisation training. "Our results suggest that creativity can be characterised as a distinct mental state - one that can be nurtured through training, and that can reflect the quality of the finished product," says Lopata.

Practice Makes Perfect

Training may help because creative tasks can be approached in different ways. One option is to be rational and analytical about it, which is associated with an increase in beta wave activity. The other is to tap into more intuitive and flexible streams of ideas, which has been associated with alpha wave activity.

"We might interpret our findings as suggesting that the trained musicians were better at focusing their intentions internally to this more intuitive, flexible way of thinking, which led to better improvisation," says Lopata.

However, Bernhard Hommel, at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, says there probably isn't a single creative brain state. He says creative acts consist of many different components, and engaging in one may make you poorer in another.

Boosting Creativity

Even so, would boosting your alpha wave activity make yourself more musical? Researchers have tried giving electrical brain stimulation to novice jazz musicians, and found that it improved their playing. "This may have put them into an alpha state, where they were better able to come up with new ideas, which improved their performance," suggests Lopata, who was not involved in that experiment.

But Rachel Wurzman, at the University of Pennsylvania, has warned against sourcing your own DIY brain stimulation online. In an open letter published in 2016, she listed many safety issues, including the fact that enhancing some cognitive abilities may come at the cost of others.

Lopata says that an activity like free-writing, where you write a spontaneous stream of ideas, would probably help you practice getting into the alpha zone. His team is now looking at what teaching measures best facilitate a creative mental state in adults and children.

Journal reference: Neuropsychologia, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.03.02