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Study looks inside a rapper's brain to reveal the origin of freestyling

by Take Two®

Image of a brain scan taken during the rap study. The orange colors show the parts of the brain that are active when a rapper is improvising. The blue areas show activity when the rapper is performing a rap from memory. NIDCD

Ever wonder what's going on under the hood (i.e. in the brain) when a rapper busts out a freestyle rap on the fly?

A recent study by the National Institutes of Health scanned the craniums of MCs for clues about what's happening in the brain when a performer is improvising rhymes.

The research was co-authored by Dr. Allen Braun. He did a similar study in 2008 that involved scanning Jazz musicians brains while they improvised. For this study, Braun enlisted the help of hip-hop producer Daniel Rizik-Baer.

Braun and Rizik-Baer created a control condition by using conventional rap lyrics set to a background beat produced by Rizik-Baer, which the MCs were then asked to memorize. In the test condition, the artists had to freestyle rap.

In both conditions, Braun explained, “we acquired images related to brain activity, and this is using an fMRI method,” (functional MRI) “and that tells us what areas of the brain are more or less active and we can get a picture of what the brain is doing, specifically during freestyle rapping.”

Unlike most rap performances, once inside the MRI machine, no movement is permitted. So the rappers were unable to keep time using their hands or by nodding their heads.

“However,” Rizik-Baer said, “it ended up not being that big of a deal. Once you got into it. Once you were in that machine, it was kind of like being in a whole different world, time flew by.”

Braun examined the brain images of the rappers while they were freestyling rhymes. He found an interesting pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex. Basically, the areas associated with self-generated and self-motivated behavior were active but the areas that monitor or censor behavior were de-activated. So while there is an aspect of the brain that is energized by using improvisational skills, there is much less self-censoring at play.

Hip Hop Producer Daneil Rizik-Baer said the findings seem in-line with what he expereinced while freestyling. He noticed that when he wasn't as worried about making sense or winning audience approval, he was able to tap into his subconscious and generate creative rhymes. “I was surprising myself,” Rizik-Baer said. “You’re not thinking about the words, it’s almost like they’re being handed to you and you’re just providing the vehicle for them to come out.”

Researcher Allen Braun explained that as this self-censoring area of the brain is deactivated, the “artists... are able to produce these improvisatory associations, surprising connections between words and rhythmic patterns and so on, that are produced really outside of conscious awareness.”  

In subsequent studies, Braun was able to discover that anyone is capable of generating this disassociated pattern of brain functions during improvisation. “So it’s not any kind of magical, you know, hot spot in the brain that occurs only in creative people, everybody is capable of it,” Braun added. “It’s what is made of it by these highly creative individuals that’s different.”

Web text by Jenna Kagel

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