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Murakami’s Fondness for Jazz Leads to a Discovery in Neuroscience


How does creativity work in the brain? Science and literature seem to have a common response.

Haruki Murakami’s fondness for jazz is widely noted. It’s a recurring motif in his works of fiction, and he’s devoted a couple of books specifically to the genre and in his youth he even ran a Tokyo jazz bar. In one of his most famous interviews (by John Wray for The Paris Review), Murakami related that at one time during his life jazz was a fundamental point of contact with Western culture. Perhaps more than a contact, he spoke of jazz as a “vanishing point” beyond his own “boring” local and national context.

Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this taste would later result in his literary vocation. And jazz eventually taught the importance of improvisation in his writing, as though it was part of a specific topic. With time it became necessary to weave in other elements along the way, to do what you can with the resources available, and then eventually to arrive at some sort of conclusion.

Piano Playing

But beyond metaphor and the literary and creative arenas, the closeness between jazz and Murakami has solid scientific echoes. This is especially evident in a line from the novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, originally published in 1985. Murakami wrote:

Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.

This fragment found an unexpected scientific confirmation from a group of researchers at the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Earlier this year, they studied how the brain operates when a musician is composing. Specifically, the experiment was to bring together some jazz pianists and ask them to improvise a melody while watching two pictures of the same woman, one smiling and the other with a look of sadness, and all while MRI machines recorded their brain activity.

Among the most interesting observations, researchers found that artistic creation occurs in the brain as a system that connects different parts, and of which the most crucial are those related to the emotions (like the limbic system).

According to Charles Limb, one of the participating scientists, these findings could radically change the concept we have of “creative people,” at least in the sense that there is a specific type of creative person. Everyone, at least in their structure, needs to generate ideas, create artistic work, interrupt and surprise themselves.

What’s unique, though, could be in the participation of the emotions in this process, as these seem to be the major regulators of creativity. In this direct relationship, the more you’re in touch with your feelings, the better are the conditions for the “creativity network” woven in amongst the different areas of the brain. The phenomenon was most noticeable when the pianists faced the photograph of the sad woman. The feeling naturally arouses empathy and, in the brain, triggers activity in the so-called “reward center.”

The “warmth” of which Murakami speaks then begins to look like creativity in full swing. It could be understood as the force that allows us to create because, in a sense, it brings us fully into our lives, passionate, and committed to what we’re doing for the simple fact that we find it satisfying.

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