IT’S TRICKY TO ROCK A RHYME, TO ROCK A RHYME THAT’S RIGHT ON TIME, IT’S TRICKY…
BUT IT HELPS TO HAVE THE RIGHT SORT OF BRAIN
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.