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Freestyle rappers teach scientists about creativity

Mike Eagle might be in the car or the shower or on stage when it hits him. A thought evolves into a freestyle rap and the rapper, better known as Open Mike Eagle, follows the lyrical trail. Freestyle, a spontaneous rap either in the middle of a written rap or on its own, remains one of the few unscripted lyrical art forms. While freestyle allows rappers to show off skills and entertain, it is also helping researchers understand how creativity works in the brain.

“Freestyle is highly prized in the hip-hop community and it is not that common and takes particular skill,” says Dr. Allen Braun, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health. “The main goal … is to understand the creative process and the brain mechanism underlying it.”

Braun and his colleagues at the NIH asked 12 rappers, who had experience freestyling, to rap in an fMRI machine. Each rapper memorized a few lines of a rap written by a friend of Eagle’s, N/A, and performed it for about a minute. Then they freestyle rapped for a minute. The researchers compared the brain activity between the freestyle and conventional performances. Eagle and his friend Daniel Rizik-Baer, a producer, participated in a pilot trail, helping researchers modify the fMRI to accommodate performances. Eagle admits it was tough rapping in the narrow tube because he normally moves when he raps; also, MRIs make a lot of loud noises. 

“It was challenging,” Eagle says. “One thing I learned in the course of doing this study [is that] freestyle rapping is a body intensive and there is movement restriction in [the fMRI].”

And freestyle rappers often rap about their surroundings so the researchers listened to quite a few rhymes about fMRI machines.

Restrictions aside, the researchers discovered important information about creativity. When the rappers freestyle rapped, activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for self-interested behavior) increased, while activity in the dorsolateral cortex (which regulates executive function), decreased. Also, while the rappers freestyled, the medial prefrontal cortex networked with other areas, including regions responsible for language and the amygdala, which plays a role emotions. And even though Eagle associates movement with freestyling, the brain did not show any increased activity in areas responsible for motor activity.

“We think there is a stronger coupling between motivation, action, language, and emotion,” Braun explains.

The researchers also looked at brain activity at the beginning of the eight bar freestyle and the end. They found that the dorsolateral cortex works more at the end, indicating that executive functioning is needed when someone tries to complete a creative work.

The researchers also asked Eagle and Rizik-Baer to rate the freestyle raps. The two evaluated each performance on lyrical creativity and rhythmic complexity. The more innovative rappers showed more activity in the language areas of the brain.  

“The innovative quality was strongly correlated with the left temporal areas, which is the lexicon areas. But also the quality is strongly correlated with the medial prefrontal cortex,” Braun says.   

While the study, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, focuses on freestyle rapping, Braun believes neurological activity will look the same in other artists.  

“We think that this might generalize to all forms of artistic creativity and even some scientific creativity.”

Below, check out a video of Eagle in action.