Mapping the artistic brain: Common and distinct neural activations associated with musical, drawing, and literary creativity

Hum Brain Mapp. 2020 Aug 15;41(12):3403-3419. doi: 10.1002/hbm.25025. Epub 2020 May 30.


Whether creativity is a domain-general or domain-specific ability has been a topic of intense speculation. Although previous studies have examined domain-specific mechanisms of creative performance, little is known about commonalities and distinctions in neural correlates across different domains. We applied activation likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis to identify the brain activation of domain-mechanisms by synthesizing functional neuroimaging studies across three forms of artistic creativity: music improvisation, drawing, and literary creativity. ALE meta-analysis yielded a domain-general pattern across three artistic forms, with overlapping clusters in the presupplementary motor area (pre-SMA), left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). Regarding domain-specificity, musical creativity was associated with recruitment of the SMA-proper, bilateral IFG, left precentral gyrus, and left middle frontal gyrus (MFG) compared to the other two artistic forms; drawing creativity recruited the left fusiform gyrus, left precuneus, right parahippocampal gyrus, and right MFG compared to musical creativity; and literary creativity recruited the left angular gyrus and right lingual gyrus compared to musical creativity. Contrasting drawing and literary creativity revealed no significant differences in neural activation, suggesting that these domains may rely on a common neurocognitive system. Overall, these findings reveal a central, domain-general system for artistic creativity, but with each domain relying to some degree on domain-specific neural circuits.

Keywords: activation likelihood estimation; artistic creativity; literary creativity; musical improvisation; visual art.