According to the authors, studying what happens in the brain during freestyle rap is of interest because it’s unique.
Rapping is “…’a multidimensional form of creativity’ that is challenging and engages an ‘interface of music and language’. Rap music is also popular and has had a major cultural impact on western society.
Scientists 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) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to find how novel brain pathways become engaged when rappers improvise lyrics.
Lead study author Siyuan Liu, Ph.D. and colleagues, scanned the brains of 12 freestyle rap artists while they performed two tasks involving an identical 8-bar musical track.
All of the rappers had at least 5 years of experience. The goal was to analyze brain activity when rappers improvised and then compare the findings to what happens when they performed rehearsed lyrics.
Brain scans (fMRI) revealed improvising lyrics engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain that regulates attention, affect, language and motor control.
At the same time, there was decreased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal brain region that plays a role in regulating behavior.
According to the researchers, the results seem to indicate multiple area of the brain interplay to create a ‘flow’ state during freestyle rapping that includes ‘loss of self-consciousness’, increased self-motivation and ‘positive emotional valence’ that they explain might occur outside of conscious awareness.
During improvisation speech areas of the brain became highly activated in a novel way that the authors say bypasses conventional brain function related to attention.
Dr. Allen Braun, chief of the NIDCD voice, speech, and language explained in a Discovery News report, "When the attention system is partially offline, you can just let things fly and let things come without critiquing, monitoring or judging them."
A surprise finding from the study
included changes in brain activity that were seen when the rappers performed eight bar segments.
The authors write: “We found that activity in the set of left prefrontal, premotor, anterior perisylvian language areas and amygdala…was relatively higher at onset, but that activations in general appeared to shift to the right hemisphere by the final measure. This indicates first of all that the network related to motivation, emotion and language …may be more strongly engaged in initiating the improvisation.”
The results, including images of the rappers brain scans, are published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The investigators concluded the brains of rappers reorganize in a way that promotes creative behavior “in the absence of conscious monitoring and volitional control.” They suggest more studies could reveal what happens in the brain during other art forms like storytelling or poetry.