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.


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
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.