Changing Planet

Brains Got Game: The Amazing Minds of Freestyle Rappers

Check the flow: Brain regions associated with innovative performance light up during improvisation. (Image: Nature Publishing Group)

Listening to freestyle rap can be humbling. When an artist easily improvises on the spot, coming up with smooth lyrics and effortless rhymes that flow to the beat in real time, it makes you wonder what amazing things are going on in that brain. A team of scientists decided to find out.

The Sounds of Science

Researchers in voice, speech, and language studied the brain activity of freestyling rappers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs). They found that when a person spontaneously creates rhyming lyrics, the brain turns up certain regions while turning down others. As the brain activity shifts, the results showed that a unique neural network activates, suggesting that there are distinct pathways for improvisational creativity.

Siyuan Liu, Allen Braun, and a team of neuroscientists affiliated with the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published their findings online in the latest issue of Scientific Reports.

The Neuroscience of Flow

Twelve freestyle artists, all with at least 5 years rapping experience, participated in the study and had their brains scanned while performing two different musical tasks. Both exercises used an identical 8-bar music track. For the first task, the rappers had to improvise rhymes and lyrical cadences to the beat. For the second part, they all performed a set of lyrics they already knew to the same beat.

Study co-author and rapper "Open" Mike Eagle and NIDCD researcher Ho Ming Chow prepare for the scan. (Image: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, NIH. )

The findings showed that freestyling changes activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region associated with language and decision-making. The improvisation increases activity in the area responsible for thought and action but decreases it in the parts that control and suppress. The findings suggest that the flowing, freestyling brain can relax its neural constraints to allow freer oral expression of words and ideas.

“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,” Braun reported in an interview with Nature.

Rappin’ Research

Other parts of the brain saw increased activity as well during the freestyle portion of the experiment. The perisylvian system (associated with language), the amygdala (linked to emotion), and the cingulate motor areas (motion) were all more engaged, which suggests that spontaneous, creativity involves a unique neural network that links language, mood, movement, and motivation together.

The team’s research will continue to explore more linguistic art forms—like poetry and storytelling—as well as other phases of the creative process. Liu told Nature: “We think that the creative process may be divided into two phases . . . The first is the spontaneous improvisatory phase. In this phase you can generate novel ideas. We think there is a second phase, some kind of creative processing [in] revision.”

As their work continues, the researchers are hopeful that they can offer more insights into what happens in the brain after the initial burst of inspiration strikes.


Focusing on content that entertains, astounds, and informs, Amy Briggs is freelance writer and former senior editor with National Geographic Books . The author of National Geographic Angry Birds Space, Briggs worked closely with National Geographic NewsWatch's David Braun on National Geographic Tales of the Weird. Excited by all things trivial, odd, and just unusual, she lives in Virginia with her family.
  • Guy

    As a hip hop artist, I can definitly back up this finding. When you are freestyling you must not try to find the right words, but actually allow them to appear to you. As creativity stems from the unconcious, limiting directed conciousness is the key; time seems to be meaningless when emmersed in a freestyle. I hope more people appreciate such a great artform. Ask any artist, whether painters, poets or craftsmen all will attribute a lessening of directed consciousness.

  • evelyn

    The brain is amazing. I have detected things before they happen like I can see only what God wants me to see “the future” I have witnesses.

  • mysticism

    hope, you will get my point 🙂
    Listening to freestyle rap can be humbling.
    When an artist easily improvises on the spot, coming …
    up with smooth lyrics and effortless rhymes
    that flow to the beat in real time,
    it makes you wonder what amazing things
    are going on in that brain.
    A team of scientists
    decided to find … out.

  • mysticism

    ( spoiler ) what’s more I bet that if you test people who play games ( for ex. real time strategy games ?) you can find the same brain spots to light up,
    also when if you ask person to talk whatever in his mind ( even if non logic ) those spots will also lighten up
    and if you want to Talk you got to use Those same parts of the brain ( spots ) because otherwise people will have a hard time understanding you ( you got to let words to appear to you ) and just say it
    And that’s why when you write something down ( a notebook for ex. ) and you write down your loose thoughts then you’re starting to get control of the unconsciouss ( notice that probably 80% of those people who rhyme also write )

  • NotARapper

    Whenever I try to freestyle,
    It takes me a while
    To stay with the flow
    Just doesn’t come to me
    On the go
    Does this mean
    I don’t have control
    of my cerebro
    How can I learn
    to spit profound words
    Like JDilla
    he was super ill-uh

    i should stick to neuroscience.

  • puspa wati

    All power of life is in the brain,

  • JUX

    Whenever I freestyle I think about Pitch and Rhythm before I ever consider what I’ll say. I approach it like a horn player considers their phrasing.


  • Guy

    @ mysticism

    Any semi-intelligent person can play video games, try rhyming of the top of your head, and producing worthy lyrics; not even most ‘paid’ rappers can do that. Also if you don’t write you aren’t a rhymer.

  • James Jones

    Fascinating! Could they try the same thing with jazz musicians? (Guess you’d need plastic instruments, with that MRI…)

  • Lokeye

    This is great! I really want to know what spots light up during a perfect improv rap verse. I have practiced targeted areas for improvement at freestyle rap for about 10,000 hours over the past 15 years and many times I’ve reached a place where time elongates and a myriad of option words present themselves (decision center?) while I’m owning the swing/shuffle oscilations in phrasing and tempo-flux along the macro-rhythm, and my body feels perfectly and divinely in a state of control seemingly without limitations; I’d like to know what the difference is physiologically and neurologically.

  • akinyi

    I get what you mean evelyn, I just wish I could get lottery numbers, but jokes aside I get what you are talking about and yes the brain is amazing.

  • Alyson Fishbein

    I too can definitely support this finding. I am a female improv vocalist. Time, for me, feels as if it is much slower. I am usually very focused on my word choice, so I tend to think forward and backward, so to speak. There are two major differences that I’ve encountered while freestyle singing/rapping. When I chose not to care about my word choice (meaning consciously choosing to sound ‘absurd’ or ‘abstract’ to an audience) I tend to engage in more rapid, intuitive thought processes. I wonder whether this has anything to do with VENs in the IV layer of the ACC? Also, I work very hard to a slower form of thinking that helps me to formulate logical statements on the ‘fly.’ When I sing it is much easier for me to formulate logical statements, rather than the fast, intuitive ones. For some reason I view my freestyle performance (which is done with a live band, rather than an instrumental track) as a reflection of how my brain is working. The more modified my word choice is, the better I feel. I also wonder what role mirror neurons play in freestyle singing. Sometimes I unconsciously emulate other singers that I’ve been listening to. Sometimes the audience catches it and I’ll admit “Yeah I’ve been listening to that band a lot lately!”

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