Guru Magazine - - Contents - ROSS HARPER• COM­PLEX­ITY GURU

What makes a cre­ative mind? Ross Harper, who loves his hip-hop, dis­cov­ers that rap­pers may have spe­cial brains. Un­wrap this ar­ti­cle and find out how.

Why are some peo­ple more cre­ative than oth­ers? I guess it’s just the way we’re wired. But what does that ac­tu­ally mean? It’s a fair ques­tion – and it’s one be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by sci­en­tists in the U.S.A. Us­ing a spe­cial brain imaging tech­nique, Dr. Siyuan Liu and his col­leagues mea­sured the brain ac­tiv­ity of rap artists dur­ing a per­for­mance. They found that when im­pro­vis­ing lyrics – rather than recit­ing a re­hearsed rap – cer­tain ar­eas of the mu­si­cian’s brain be­come more ac­tive than oth­ers – hint­ing at a neu­ronal ba­sis be­hind mu­si­cal cre­ativ­ity. Aw snap! The sci­en­tists recorded brain ac­tiv­ity in 12 pro­fes­sional male rap­pers us­ing the some­what un-gang­ster method of ‘Func­tional Mag­netic Res­o­nance Imaging’ (fMRI). This in­volves us­ing a fancy piece of kit that mea­sures blood flow changes within the brain. When an area of the brain be­comes more ac­tive, it re­quires more oxy­gen, and so the body in­creases blood flow to that area. By look­ing at how much blood is be­ing sent to dif­fer­ent parts of the brain, we get a good idea of which ar­eas are cur­rently be­ing used. That’s some pretty cool sci­ence right there,

homie, but un­for­tu­nately it means climb­ing into a gi­ant white tube and stay­ing very, very still so as not to blur the im­ages. Not so cool if you’re a rap­per try­ing to get your swag­ger on. Luck­ily, Liu and friends used a spe­cially de­vel­oped cor­rec­tion tech­nique to edit out the mo­tion blur, al­low­ing the test sub­jects to bump and grind to their heart’s con­tent. It’s as if the artists were on stage at one of their gigs – only they weren’t, be­cause they were ac­tu­ally ly­ing down, in a lab, sur­rounded by sci­en­tists. Cold. First, the test sub­jects per­formed a re­hearsed rap they’d been given to learn a week ear­lier. They rapped to a stan­dard 8-bar mu­si­cal track, hav­ing their brain ac­tiv­ity mea­sured con­tin­u­ously. Each rap­per was then asked to im­pro­vise lyrics to the same back­ing track. The re­sults were pretty im­pres­sive. When greater cre­ativ­ity was re­quired (dur­ing the im­pro­vi­sa­tion), changes were seen in two ar­eas of the brain: an area called the me­dial pre­frontal cor­tex (mPFC) be­came more ac­tive, while another re­gion – the dor­so­lat­eral pre­frontal cor­tex (dlPFC) – got qui­eter. The dlPFC tends to be in­volved in the con­scious con­trol of thought, act­ing as a sort of fil­ter to

other re­gions of the brain by keep­ing a lid on those more ‘an­i­mal’ urges. It’s an im­por­tant part of be­ing hu­man – we’re not slaves to our emo­tions; we have some con­trol over what we do and think. But when the brain needs to be cre­ative, per­haps the fil­ter isn’t all that use­ful. The mPFC cre­ates new ideas that could be at risk of get­ting fil­tered out. It’s con­stantly go­ing, “hey bro, check out this awe­some string of words I just put to­gether”, whereas the dlPFC is all, “Shut it fool! Ain’t no­body got time for your bab­blin’”. The de­crease in dlPFC ac­tiv­ity seen dur­ing the im­pro­vi­sa­tion task could there­fore be like switch­ing-off your in­ner critic and al­low­ing in­spi­ra­tion to flow. Freestyle rap­pers of­ten re­port a state of ‘be­ing in the zone’, where they aren’t wholly aware of what they are say­ing. Ath­letes re­port a sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non when com­pet­ing. It all agrees with the no­tion of si­lenc­ing that in­ner critic and al­low­ing the spon­ta­neous gen­er­a­tion of cre­ativ­ity from more sub­con­scious ar­eas to flow. In­ter­est­ingly, when un­bi­ased vol­un­teers rated the qual­ity of the test sub­ject’s per­for­mances, the artists who scored high­est were those that demon­strated the largest changes in brain ac­tiv­ity. This re­search may there­fore not only have dis­cov­ered un­der­ly­ing mech­a­nisms of mu­si­cal cre­ativ­ity, but might also pro­vide a way to pre­dict any­one’s cre­ative abil­ity! Sorry ma’am, your daugh­ter can’t go to nurs­ery to­day; she’s go­ing on tour with Jay-Z.


Liu, S, et al. (2012). Neu­ral cor­re­lates of lyri­cal im­pro­vi­sa­tion: an fMRI study of freestyle rap. Sci­en­tific re­ports, 2. P.S. For any­one who didn’t get the memo that sci­en­tists are cool now, check out

this rap by Open Mike Ea­gle – one of the co-au­thors of this pa­per.

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