This is Your Brain on Freestyle Rap

By Wesley Fenlon

A scientific study uses improvisational rapping to study how the brain handles creativity.

If you thought that functional magnetic resonance imaging had nothing to do with freestyle rapping, you were dead wrong. A new scientific study titled "Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap" uses rapping as a novel way to examine how creativity manifests in the brain. Rapping, specifically freestyle rapping, was the perfect candidate for study--it involves how the brain thinks about music and deals with creativity and improvisation.

The study states that "the neural correlates of creativity are poorly understood." To better understand the parts of the brain that deal with creativity, participants were scanned while performing improvisational and rehearsed rap. The improvised session resulted in:

"Increases in activity of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), extending from the frontopolar cortex to the pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA) and decreases in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), extending from the orbital to superior regions...The improvised condition was also associated with increased activity in perisylvian areas in the left hemisphere, including inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG), middle temporal (MTG) and superior temporal (STG) gyri, and intervening superior temporal sulcus (STS) and fusiform gyrus. Improvised performance was in addition associated with left lateralized activation of motor areas; these included the left cingulate motor area (CMA), pre-SMA, dorsal premotor cortex (PMd), head and body of the caudate nucleus, and globus pallidus, and the right posterior cerebellum and vermis."

Don't know each portion of the brain by heart? That's okay--the study gives a little context for why all this is interesting. It notes that the language areas of the left hemisphere lit up more in improvised than rehearsed performance, meaning language processing wasn't the only reason for activity. More importantly, the study indicates a correlation between each part of the brain that lit up during an improvised rap session:

"The connectivity analyses therefore suggested the emergence of a more widespread, large-scale network that might play a role in lyrical improvisation....conventional interactions between medial and lateral prefrontal cortices appear to be markedly altered: given that BOLD signal in these regions is anticorrelated, the increases in MPFC activity appear to be tightly coupled to decreases in the DLPFC. We propose that this dissociated pattern reflects a state in which internally motivated, stimulus-independent behaviors are allowed to unfold in the absence of conscious volitional control."

The study compares its findings to a "psychological 'flow' state' because improvisation networks together motivation, language, emotion and motor function. They also found that the parts of the brain dedicated to emotion, language and motivation had a stronger influence at the beginning than the end of a session, meaning they essentially kickstarted the process but weren't in control by the end.

Now that we know so much about improvisation, we can only hope that someone delivers a freestyle rap about amygdalas and inferior frontal gyruses.