Posted by: Liz Massey | May 13, 2008

Surf’s Up, May 13, 2008

Two musical mysteries, an idea for storing creative project materials, information on how to establish creative habits and a fantastic interview on the meaning of art round out this week’s dose of web-based creativity!

1. Music often seems mysterious to those who haven’t played an instrument or sung in a choir. However, the Cognitive Daily blog reports a study by Andrea Halpern, in which she taught non-musicians to accurately identify tunes played in a major or minor key by suggesting that the major key tunes sounded “happy” and the minor key tunes “sad.”

Even more fascinating than that bit of data are the topographic maps of EEG-measured brain activity of musicians and non-musicians while listening to tunes in a minor or major key that are included in the post. The non-musicians showed a rather uniform reaction to both types of tunes, but the trained musicians had dramatically more brain activity when they listened to tunes played in a minor key.

Post author Dave Munger reports,

“The researchers suggest that the lack of activity in musicians during major tunes may be due to the fact that most Western music is played in a major key: 97 percent of popular American songs, and 73 percent of classical music is in a major key. So the activity occurs when an relatively unexpected key is used — but only for trained musicians.”

2. On an entirely different musical note (so to speak), the research digest blog of the British Psychological Society reported recently on a phenomenon that takes the song you “can’t get out of your head” to a new level: musical hallucinosis.

The post recounts several anecdotes of patients who suffered from the condition, which consists of perceiving music being played when none is within earshot. Most were aware that they were experiencing a hallucination, which makes the condition different from persons experiencing psychotic hallucinations.

The post notes that Ramon Mocellin and his research colleagues, who recently published a scientific paper on the disorder, have observed that musical hallucinosis is often associated with deafness. Mocellin’s team members think the condition may reflect the spontaneous, aberrant firing of those brain cells whose job is to process music, if there were any to be heard. Higher brain levels then seek to make sense of this spontaneous firing, often drawing on musical memories in the process.

3. Janet Rae-Dupree of the New York Times recently wrote an interesting article about the relationship between changing habits and increasing creative thinking.

She writes that talking about habits, which can often seem quite restrictive, and creativity in the same breath can seem counter-intuitive, but brain research now indicates that the development of NEW habits, which requires the development of new synaptic paths and brain cells, can jump the mind into new, more innovative modes of thought, as well. In other words, the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we can become.

For the article, she interviewed Dawna Markova, author of “The Open Mind” and an executive change consultant for Professional Thinking Partners. Markova notes that humans are born with the capacity to approach challenges in four primary ways: analytically, procedurally, relationally (or collaboratively) and innovatively. Current educational testing focuses on analytical and procedural thinking almost exclusively.

Rae-Dupree writes:

“Few of us inherently use our innovative and collaborative modes of thought… This is where developing new habits comes in. If you’re an analytical or procedural thinker, you learn in different ways than someone who is inherently innovative or collaborative. Figure out what has worked for you when you’ve learned in the past, and you can draw your own map for developing additional skills and behaviors for the future.”

There’s additional good news in this article: there’s no need to kill off your old “bad” habits to make this process work! Procedural ruts get worn into the hippocampus permanently. But, the article says, “The new habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass those old roads.”

4. The Unclutter blog had a post the other day about reusable temporary storage solutions that has implications for creative people who need a place to put their project materials.

The post discusses how the authors made more storage space in their bathroom by using InterMetro shelving and inexpensive white storage boxes of varying sizes to create a mobile, non-permanent way to organize different types of materials. I saw the picture accompanying the post and immediately thought of how nice it would be to have craft materials, drawing accessories, project papers, and other creative project materials easily at hand.

5. Finally, the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Finding My Religion” columnist David Ian Miller recently chatted with Jane Dillenberger, 92, a professor of art and religion at Berkeley‘s Graduate Theological Union and a working art historian since 1942. The article that resulted from their conversation is an intriguing discussion of artist Andy Warhol’s spirituality (which he apparently had in spades—he prayed with his Ukrainian Catholic mother and painted dozens of versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”) and of how spirituality and creativity are related.

The article sheds new light for some of us on Warhol’s complex nature, and is a loving look at a woman who has spent her life helping others appreciate the meaning and beauty of great art!



  1. Hi. Nice post! Just a little point. Habits reside in the basal ganglia, not the hippocampus.

  2. Great post; I especially enjoyed the two “musical mysteries”. Your blog looks so interesting; I’ll definitely keep following your posts!


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