15 November 2012

The Science of Rap: Studying fMRI Brain Activity While Freestyling

Researchers study the brain activity, through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), of rappers while freestyling. The study tries to focus on how the brain works during an activity where creativity, language, and artistic expression are all combined.

Music is the language of the soul, that's how the saying goes. Some may discount rap and hip-hop as a minor subtext when it comes to music. But this type of music requires more brain resources during a performance than most other type of musical expression. Nothing merges music and language closer than freestyle rap.

Freestyle rap is a type of rap where the lyrics are spontaneously created as it is performed. A backup instrumental or beat is laid out to provide rhythm (although some raps provide the rhythm too). Compared to mainstream rap where the lyrics are memorized and rehearsed, freestyle rap lets the rapper construct the words, thoughts, and ideas as he goes along. It is similar to communicating with someone.

Aside from communication, freestyle rap also has a creative and artistic component. It is this amalgamation of factors that makes it ideal for studying brain activity of both music and language.

On a side note, jazz also has a similar theme but lacks the language component as it relies more heavily on the spontaneous improvisation of musical notes rather than words. Watching the video below about brain activity, language, and creativity during freestyle rapping and jazz is highly recommended to know more about this study.

Analyzing Brain Activity During Freestyle Rap

Researchers in the voice, speech, and language branch of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the brain activity of rappers when they are "freestyling" – spontaneously improvising lyrics in real time. The findings, published online in the November 15 issue of the journal Scientific Reports, reveal that this form of vocal improvisation is associated with a unique functional reallocation of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and proposes a novel neural network that appears to be intimately involved in improvisatory and creative endeavors.

Video: How Brain Works In Artistic Creativity

The researchers, led by Siyuan Liu, Ph.D., scanned the brains of 12 freestyle rap artists (who had at least 5 years of rapping experience) while they performed two tasks using an identical 8-bar musical track. For the first task, they improvised rhyming lyrics and rhythmic patterns guided only by the beat. In the second task, they performed a well-rehearsed set of lyrics.

During freestyle rapping, the researchers observed increases in brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for motivation of thought and action, but decreased activity in dorsolateral prefrontal regions that normally play a supervisory or monitoring role. Like an experienced parent who knows when to lay down the law and when to look the other way, these shifts in brain function may facilitate the free expression of thoughts and words without the usual neural constraints.

Freestyling also increased brain activity in the perisylvian system (involved in language production), the amygdala (an area of the brain linked to emotion), and cingulate motor areas, suggesting that improvisation engages a brain network that links motivation, language, mood, and action. Further studies of this network in other art forms that involve the innovative use of language, such as poetry and storytelling, could offer more insights into the initial, improvisatory phase of the creative process.


NIH/National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders
Scientific Reports
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