In the worldwide cultural juggernaut that is hip-hop, it's widely understood that the spontaneous lyrical improvisation of freestyle rap is the genre's purest form of creation. More often than not, how well a rapper navigates this stream-of-conscious realm is the yardstick by which talent is measured.
But what's happening in the brain during this creative "flow" state? It's a question that researchers in the voice, speech and language branch of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) wanted to find out.
"Our interests were in the neural correlates of creativity," Dr. Siyuan Liu told Discovery News. Liu was lead researcher and one of the co-authors of a new study on the brain activity of freestyle rappers published in Scientific Report. "Previously we did a study on jazz musicians when they improvised the melodies. The other part of music is lyrics, so we thought it would be interesting to study the brain activity when the lyrics where improvised as well."
Four years ago, the publication of the jazz study caught the eye of Daniel Rizik-Baer, a hip-hop enthusiast and producer with a background in social work and community building through art and music.
"As I read the study I thought that freestyle rapping would be a perfect fit, a better fit than the jazz improvisation for what the team at NIH was studying," said Rizik-Baer, an outreach director and production manager for the Levitt Pavilion Pasadena. So he emailed one of the study's co-authors, Dr. Allen Braun, chief of the NIDCD voice, speech, and language branch and pitched the idea. Four years in the making, that pitch has come to fruition with the publication of "Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap."
"It's really a piece of a larger puzzle," said Braun, also a co-author on the study. "What is the hallmark of the creative process?"
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Liu, Braun and the rest of the team scanned the brain of 12 freestyle rap artists as they rapped over an 8-bar musical track created by Rizik-Baer. Rappers were first tasked to improvise rhyming lyrics and rhythmic patterns. In a second trial, they performed a well-rehearsed set of memorized lyrics.
During the freestyle segment, researchers saw increased activity in the brain's medial prefrontal cortex but a decreased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal region.
"The medial part of the frontal cortex plays a role in self motivation and the integration of information," said Liu. "On the other hand, we know that the lateral part of the frontal cortex actually plays a role in attention, self-monitoring and other executive functions."
What this means is that freestylers enter a "flow" state, which researchers described as a "complete immersion in creative activity, typified by focused self-motivation, positive emotional valence and loss of self-consciousness." Their creative gate is wide open.
"It's the absence of attention," said Braun. "When the attention system is partially offline, you can just let things fly and let things come without critiquing, monitoring or judging them."
"It's almost like you're able to think faster," said Rizik-Baer, who was also credited as co-author of the study. "You're able to incorporate multiple perspectives without thinking about it."
Mike Eagle, another credited co-author and hip-hop artist in Los Angeles, says he feels relaxed in the flow state.
"I allow my body to feel the beat and keep the rhythm," he said. "Mentally, I am attempting to reorganize all the words that I know into the best possible combinations within the confines of the rhythm."
The study also showed that freestyling increases brain activity in the the perisylvian system (area of language production), the amygdala (area linked to emotion) and cingulate motor areas, all of which help Eagle and other freestylers achieve optimum fluidity.
"We think this freestyle improvisation, in itself, could be characterized by a big network linking together, combining motivation, language, action and emotion,” said Liu.
Braun says it's not so much that these systems are heightened, but that they're more tightly connected.
"These patterns suggest that they’re not monitoring or censoring so closely," he said. "So this may allow connections, novel ideas and novel associations to emerge more naturally without being cutoff.”
As for addressing the out-of-body experience that people often describe while immersed in this flow state, Braun and Liu said any evidence of that is purely speculative. However, increased brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and all along its mid-line does suggest that freestylers tap into the subconscious.
"There's literature that goes back to Benjamin Libet. It says the voluntary activity produced by, we think, this part of the brain occurs well before you’re consciously aware of that movement,” explained Braun. “There’s good evidence for that. The fact that we see very strong activation in this part of the brain is not inconsistent with the idea that freestyle rap may be organized outside of conscious experience.”
Next on the research team's agenda: looking at brain activity during the other half of the creative dichotomy.
"We think that the creative process can be divided into two phases. The first phase is the spontaneous and improvisatory phase," said Liu. "The second phase we call the revision or refinement phase" where "people try to adjust what they generated from the first phase and make it better.”
Liu's curiosity is simple: "What is happening in the second phase."
But for now, Rizik-Baer is just happy to see his idea come full circle and said the project's cross-cultural exchange was a true highlight.
“When a lot of people see hip-hop, they run the other direction," he said. "But Dr. Braun was open minded enough to look into it.”
Rizik-Baer said he and other rappers don't need academia or scientific studies to legitimize hip-hop or freestyling. However, that the study juxtaposed hip-hop's often negative portrayal in the media was a nice confirmation of freestyling's deeper, cognitive impact.
“To put it bluntly, this culture and art form that is perpetuated, for the most part, by young African-American males, has a highly intellectual component to it that really shows large, complex levels of brain activity," he said. "To me that was important.
“It’s about moving beyond the limitations that we place on ourselves. That’s a big part of creativity -- not letting social pressures or thoughts of what’s right or wrong dictate what we’re doing. It’s letting go of those chains and allowing our brain to be free.”