The best freestyle artists of all time, such as Eminem, Jay-Z, BIG, Logic, Proof, and countless more are having a look into how they are able to take the words in their head to make rhyming lyrical works. Researchers have found that freestyling changes the way your brain functions to increase integration and motivation and decrease the functions of self-monitoring and control (livescience.com). In hindsight, this makes sense; rappers need to be able to take words, that would otherwise be unconnected, and make stories, meaning, or a flow while being able to incorporate rhyming. With this being the brains goal, things like control and filtering get in the way. They slow down the brains processing when the main purpose is to keep the flow of rhymes going. Though this helps rappers create better formed rhymes, thinking more on what you’re saying and not how your saying it causes a lot of rhymes that violate social norms and often offend people.
Most of the changes that allow the brain to rap happen in the frontal cortex. Which of course, is known for it’s influential role in judgement. However, in a study by eight researchers, it was found that these judgement sections are quieted to make room for the creative thought expressed as raps. In this experiment, the researchers recruited twelve male rappers who agreed to “spit bars” while in a fMRI. They were given an eight-measure (bar) to memorized before the experiment to be rapped in the fMRI and act as a control. After the individual recited the given rhymes to a beat, they were told they could freestyle about whatever they chose to the same beat. The researchers found, partially what they expected. The medial prefrontal cortex, influential in creative thought, memorial retrieval, strategy, and attention shifting was requiring much more blood than it usually would. All of these functions are crucial in creating a plan to be converted into words that are rhymed to a beat. As a result, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex quieted to the demands of the medial. The dorsolateral being the influential section for judging and monitoring/censoring thoughts…which doesn’t happen if it is submissive to the need for rhymes (An fMRI Study on Freestyle Rapping). The researchers also found that the amygdala was often “lit up” during the creation of raps. This is why many great rappers often get emotional and bring up their past in their rhymes. This emotion also contributes to the lack of judgment by pairing creativity with intense feelings. Therefore, though great freestyle rappers are able to think quickly on their feet, they often say things that offend many people or don’t represent the ideals the rapper actually believes in.
This study was very careful to make sure that the changes in the brains behavior were due to the introduction of freestyling. They used the memorized rap as a control to make sure that the brain does not “light up” this way for any kind of rapping. They also made sure that they found the same kind of results in different people. They concluded that the results were accurate because across the participants, the introduction of freestyling caused the brain to change its function to best produce rhyming. However, I would like to see a follow-up experiment that has more participants to understand if their results can truly be generalized to all freestyle rappers.
I would also like to see a study that specifically focuses on rappers who have been doing the art for most of their life. A neuroscientist named Heather Berlin spoke at the 92nd Street Y’s Seven Days of Genius event about rapper Eminem. “He probably has more advanced connections in terms of his language areas. Over time, when you practice something, a cognitive skill or a motor skill, you’re developing connections in the brain. So I’m sure his brain would look slightly different” (TheCut). Seeing how his brain specifically works while he’s freestyle would be fascinating. Overall, the basic concepts behind rapping are being understood, but the long-term affects they have on the brain are still unknown.
Landsbaum, C. (2015). What a Neuroscientist Said About Eminem’s Brain. TheCut.
Retrieved from: https://www.thecut.com/2015/03/what-a-neuroscientist-said-about eminems-brain.html
Pappas, S. (2012). How Eminem Invents Freestyle Rhymes on the Spot. LiveScience. Retrieved
Liu, S., Chow H. M., Xu, Y., Erkkinen, M., Swett, K., Eagle, M., Rizik-Baer, D., & Braun, A.
(2012). Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap.
Scientific Reports, 834. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep00834