Goal-independent mechanisms for free response generation: creative and pseudo-random performance share neural substrates

Neuroimage. 2012 Jan 2;59(1):772-80. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.07.016. Epub 2011 Jul 19.


To what extent free response generation in different tasks uses common and task-specific neurocognitive processes has remained unclear. Here, we investigated overlap and differences in neural activity during musical improvisation and pseudo-random response generation. Brain activity was measured using fMRI in a group of professional classical pianists, who performed musical improvisation of melodies, pseudo-random key-presses and a baseline condition (sight-reading), on either two, six or twelve keys on a piano keyboard. The results revealed an extensive overlap in neural activity between the two generative conditions. Active regions included the dorsolateral and dorsomedial prefrontal cortices, inferior frontal gyrus, anterior cingulate cortex and pre-SMA. No regions showed higher activity in improvisation than in pseudo-random generation. These findings suggest that the activated regions fulfill generic functions that are utilized in different types of free generation tasks, independent of overall goal. In contrast, pseudo-random generation was accompanied by higher activity than improvisation in several regions. This presumably reflects the participants' musical expertise as well as the pseudo-random generation task's high load on attention, working memory, and executive control. The results highlight the significance of using naturalistic tasks to study human behavior and cognition. No brain activity was related to the size of the response set. We discuss that this may reflect that the musicians were able to use specific strategies for improvisation, by which there was no simple relationship between response set size and neural activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Music
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Young Adult