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Featured Researcher: Hannah Merseal

Posted on October 15, 2021

A lifelong musician, Hannah Merseal is interested in the psychology of creativity, especially for jazz musicians who rely on improvisation. After double majoring in music and psychology, she came to Penn State pursue her Ph.D. in psychology, joining the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab with Dr. Roger Beaty. Using sophisticated imaging techniques, Hannah is exploring how memory, cognition, attention, and other brain functions play a role in creativity.

How did you get into this research field?

I am a lifelong musician and have always wanted to know how we are able to use the power of our brains to create. I play jazz (I had a band in the Boston area in college) and it’s very different from other ways of performing – the audience is right there in front of you, and you have to harness all sorts of cognitive processes (like memory, motor control, and attention) while also coming up with a new, interesting, enjoyable piece of music. I worked with a number of research labs asking questions about music, and now am here with the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab figuring out the mechanisms of improvisation.


What is your academic background?

I attended Wheaton College, which is a small liberal arts school in Norton, Massachusetts, where I double majored in music and psychology. Along the way, I was awarded funding to complete research assistantships in music cognition labs at UConn and Tufts. I now am here at Penn State, where I am now completing a PhD in psychology, with a specialization in cognitive and affective neuroscience, with Dr. Roger Beaty.


What are the big problems you hope your research solves — and/or the big opportunities you hope your research seizes?

There are a few domains of behavior in which humans excel, and these include language, action planning, and music. Due to the real-time, hierarchically organized nature of these behaviors, there’s a big question as to whether these domains might share neural resources. I think improvisation, which is really like human cognition at its most creative,


What’s the elevator pitch for your research?

When jazz musicians improvise, they have to draw upon a vast library of musical knowledge that they have learned and stored in memory. My research has recently shown that this information in memory can be modeled and conceptualized as a network. In domain-general creativity research, we have found that creative people possess a semantic memory structure with network properties which facilitate creative thinking: more flexible, with more connections, less modularity, and a shorter distance between concepts. Similarly, I think improvising musicians may have a “musical network” in memory that facilitates this knowledge reference process in a real-time performance.


What is the biggest surprise for you personally that has come out of your research journey?

Less related to my work with improvisation, I’ve recently embarked on a series of “creativity for good” projects that work with non-profit entities to measure creativity in large, diverse populations. I think the two-way relationship between scientists and these kinds of groups is incredible: the non-profit gets the scientific advice they need, and we get access to these incredible datasets with samples that are more truly reflective of the population than our traditional college-aged WEIRD samples. It’s a win-win situation.


What types of interdisciplinary collaborations would you like to build in the future?

I think the best public policy is backed by science, and so I would really like to build more outreach collaborations with educators, political figures, and business professionals to see how we can harness the power of data to create positive change. More generally, I am very excited to work with the School of Music and other arts organizations at Penn State to answer some of our questions about creativity.


What’s your favorite sound?

Rather than meowing, my cat Matcha usually communicates using a rather surprised sounding grunt that I have termed a “ferp”. It never fails to make me smile.


What’s your advice for would-be scientists?

Read and write every day, even if it’s something goofy or small. Writing is something that takes a ton of practice and that scientists don’t traditionally receive a lot of straightforward guidance on. For accessibility purposes, I like trying to rewrite really jargony passages as if I were trying to explain my research to my parents or grandparents. That work usually ends up making it into the final versions of my papers or research talks.


What profession other than your own would you enjoy?

I actually think I would find working in local government very fulfilling. Much like Leslie Knope, I am hyperenthusiastic about working at the community level to create positive change. Local governments are underappreciated for their direct impact on the lives of their constituents. Maybe someday this is in the cards!


Favorite hobbies/pastimes that have nothing to do with your professional work?

I actually help one of my best friends by editing her romance novels! It helps me work in a little bit of reading for fun while also feeling like I’m accomplishing something. I will plead the fifth on our pen names. I also love playing high fantasy RPGs with lots of dragons and good storytelling.


Three favorite podcasts

  • Dolly Parton’s America
  • Simply PodLogical
  • Radiolab


What’s in your Spotify (or other app) playlist?

I’m not picky. I listen to a fair amount of jazz and funk, and music related to those genres – I have a soft spot for New Orleans style brass band music. I also listen to an embarrassing amount of disco and “dad rock” (i.e., Steely Dan). I think Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes)’s solo album Jaime is one of the best musical works to come out of the last 5 years. 




















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