Street Science: Freestyle Rapping Causes Unique Brain Patterns

By Nick Venable | 8 years ago

For those who don’t know, I go by the name of “the least prolific hip-hop producer ever.” While I enjoy making the music, my favorite part is crafting lyrics. Who’d have thought a writer would prefer the word-based aspect of making music? I’m very deliberate about writing lyrics, sometimes spending five to ten minutes on a single rhyme, because my propensity for freestyle rapping is lacking. I need complete focus on the lines, while some guys are spitting impromptu verses in the time it takes me to find a pen, or set up Microsoft Word. Well, a new study has shown me exactly what parts of my brain aren’t working when I do attempt to freestyle.

The brains of 12 freestyle rappers — all with at least five years experience — were scanned with an MRI by Siyuan Liu, Ph.D., and her team from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health. The study published for the journal Scientific Reports explains that the purpose was to study the brain activity involved with the improvisational song styles, and the results are about what you’d imagine.

With an identical 8-bar track for the music, each subject had two tasks from the researchers. The first was to show their skillset, improvising their lyrics and rhythms based on the beat alone, and the second task had them performing a well-rehearsed set of lyrics to the beat.

Increased activity was observed in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for motivation of thought and action, with less activity occurring in the dorsolateral prefrontal regions that serve supervisory or monitoring positions. The language-based brain region called the perisylvian system, the emotion-centered amygdala, and the cingulate motor areas also showed an increase in activity, which suggests that this form of vocal improv actually causes the brain’s networking to link motivation, language, emotion, and action, in a way it wouldn’t ordinarily.

To me, it’s like if you catch your kid drawing on the walls with a crayon, but they’re drawing something really awesome. You’re motivated to scream with emotion, but you calmly and quickly find non-four-letter words to use to describe your pride. Maybe it’s not like that at all. It’s definitely not like this at all.

The future is now a sandbox for these kinds of creativity-based studies. I’d have to assume the next step will be studying improv comedians, since the scenarios they imagine are less contained than a rap song. Somebody get Matt Besser and the Upright Citizens Brigade on this.

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