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Brain Scans of Rappers Shed Light on Creativity

16 November 2012

From Scientific American:

Rappers making up rhymes on the fly while in a brain scanner have provided an insight into the creative process.

Freestyle rapping — in which a performer improvises a song by stringing together unrehearsed lyrics — is a highly prized skill in hip hop. But instead of watching a performance in a club, Siyuan Liu and Allen Braun, neuroscientists at the US National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Maryland, and their colleagues had 12 rappers freestyle in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

The artists also recited a set of memorized lyrics chosen by the researchers. By comparing the brain scans from rappers taken during freestyling to those taken during the rote recitation, they were able to see which areas of the brain are used during improvisation.

. . . .

“We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity,” says Braun.

. . . .

Jung says that this downregulation is likely to apply in other, non-musical areas of creativity — including science.

The findings also suggest an explanation for why new music might seem to the artist to be created of its own accord. With less involvement by the lateral prefrontal regions of the brain, the performance could seem to its creator to have “occurred outside of conscious awareness”, the authors write.

Michael Eagle, a study co-author who raps under the name Open Mike Eagle, agrees: “That’s kind of the nature of that type of improvisation. Even as people who do it, we’re not 100% sure of where we’re getting improvisation from.”

Link to the rest at Scientific American

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2 Comments to “Brain Scans of Rappers Shed Light on Creativity”

  1. Much as I dislike the current digging-down-into-the-brain-to- remove-the-mind-from-the-equation direction of cognitive-science/neuroscience (by which I mean, I really hope that the mind is actually seperate from the brain or we can kiss free-will goodbye once the military/political types get hold of a way of weaponising this science. Yeah, I’m an SF writer but that doesn’t make me wrong) I must admit that, as a pure pantser, I recognise this.

    Part of what I do is just let the words flow, I don’t judge them, I don’t think about them, I just let them hit my keyboard as they will. I never look more than a couple of scenes ahead in a story, and most of the time not even that, so this downregulation idea is very familiar to me.

    And they are right about the secondary “[…] some kind of creative processing [in] revision[…]” too. Because as I am writing I am processing what I have written in a kind of lock-step with the words flowing onto the page. I know when I have written a dodgy line and I know when I am writing something that is about to send the story off in a quite unexpected direction.

    I also am always aware that I can fix any problems in the rewrite 🙂

    So…this all strikes a chord with me. I do hope they have Soma in the future. Sigh.

  2. Improv verbal songwriting or poetic recitation is deeply different from memorized performance, although it’s likely that seasoned performers do have performance as one of their big skills. Of course, improvisation in a lab setting is probably less performance than rapping in front of friends or a responsive audience would be.

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