How the brain functions while freestyling

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 ( 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:                       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:

6 thoughts on “How the brain functions while freestyling

  1. jzaccagn

    I am not even going to lie. I cannot stop smiling to myself, because imagining someone freestyling in an fMRI scanner seems absolutely hilarious to me. I did have to do a double take when I saw Eminem’s face and read a post about freestyling! Your post is certainly original! Good job! It seems like the researchers of the experiment were careful in their controls, which is a good thing. I also agree with your assessment that more experiments need to be done in order to truly understand if this is how the brain operates while freestyling. People who can rap amaze me. I trip over my words while I have one-way conversations with my dog, and yet, rappers can spit out words and rhyme to a rhythm. I am the whitest white girl there is, and it is kind of embarrassing. I am not sure if I am completely sold that their self-monitoring is being inhibited. That is something I utterly respect in the art of rapping. Rappers are completely unafraid to tell the truth as they see it, no matter how ugly it is. At least, I think they are intentionally bold; but again, this idea takes me back to my own post, which addresses “belief perseverance”. D:

    1. mbap Post author

      Thank you for the reply and thoughts! I’m glad you have an appreciation for rapping! I agree somewhat with what you said about self-monitoring not being completely turned off. I don’t believe that what rappers are saying isn’t how they feel or expressive of themselves. However, I do support the idea that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DPC) is being “quieted” in a sense. In my opinion, this is what allows rappers to loosen up in a sense of being able to say what they think without the DPC interpreting how others will respond or react. I think it really let’s rappers “get in that head space” and let their creative thought be expressed in their raps. (In summary, I don’t think they are necessarily just saying crazy things because they aren’t thinking logically, they are saying what they actually think without worrying about the social norms/constructs it breaks)

      1. jzaccagn

        Thank you for the clarification, and I think your sentence of summary sums your ideas perfectly!

        What I take away from this is freestyle is pure, creative flow. It is not that rappers are irrational human beings, but during performance, their brains are focused in the creative process, or neurons firing in the medial prefrontal cortex as you said 🙂

        I am interested in seeing how the brains of rap artists compare to other virtuosos in other disciplines, like classical music. I think prodigy of piano would definitely be more difficult to record however. Personal opinion: I think the neural connections of rap artists would be much complex than those some of those who perform rock and pop, not that I dislike either of those genres. I just know if I can play the same three chords on repeat as the same author of music does than it cannot be that complicated.
        -Julie Z

  2. sdavis4

    I love the topic it is very interesting. I can remember when I was little trying to make up songs and rap with my brother and actually believe that I had some skills, that is until we used a video camera to record our living room concerts and the video evidence showed otherwise. I agree it does take much more talents and skilled training to be a great rapper and I can also agree that Eminem was definitely one of them. Testing the brains activity with a fMRI machine was genius it is a great study to break down the brains activity and really see what areas of the brain work more when freestyling versus singing or rapping with music and instruments. I find it very interesting what neuroscientist Heather Berlin said that freestyle rappers have a deeper connection to their language areas when the rappers practice over and over again. This clearly shows how it breaks through to deeper connections to the brain. Great post!

  3. mshifflett4

    I think this is a really interesting topic to cover for the assignment. The idea of music and freestyle rapping is pretty cool. Especially when we take a minute to look at the cognitive functions involved in actions like these that we see in everyday life. Like some of the other comments pointed out, I also think it’s pretty funny that they hooked these rappers up to an fMRI machine and then instructed them to rap away. It’s just weird to think that an fMRI can be used for something as light-hearted as this experiment to test people’s brain functions when they freestyle, but can also be used to help diagnose and study serious medical conditions. I think overall this was a really good choice to do your first post on!! 🙂

  4. jesseboles

    This was such an interesting article to read. The concept of understanding individuals brains while freestyle rapping is really neat. I think the experiment they performed is pretty reliable as they made sure to include a control to make sure that the changes in the brain were specific to the freestyle. However, I do believe that more tests should be done in order to make a more concrete explanation. I agree with the other comments that imaging a rapper freestyling while in an FMRI machine is pretty hilarious. Great job on this article!

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