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Peering into the brains of freestyle rappers to better understand creativity

There’s an interesting piece today in Nature News about researchers using fMRI to record the brain activity of rappers as they improvise lyrics in an effort to analyze the brain during periods of intense creativity.

In the study (subscription required), neuroscientists instructed a dozen subjects to recite memorized lyrics or freestyle rap while inside a fMRI machine. Researchers then compared the scans to identify which areas of the brain are used during improvisation. Daniel Cressey writes:

The results parallel previous imaging studies in which Braun and Charles Limb, a doctor and musician at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, looked at fMRI scans from jazz musicians2. Both sets of artists showed lower activity in part of their frontal lobes called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during improvisation, and increased activity in another area, called the medial prefrontal cortex. The areas that were found to be ‘deactivated’ are associated with regulating other brain functions.

“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.

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.

Previously: How the brain works during improvisation
Photo by Anthony Acosta

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