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Music Science

Brain Scans of Rappers and Jazz Musicians Shed Light On Creativity 92

ananyo writes "Rappers making up rhymes on the fly while in a brain scanner have provided an insight into the creative process. Freestyle rapping — in which a performer improvises a song by stringing together unrehearsed lyrics — is a highly prized skill in hip hop. But instead of watching a performance in a club, Siyuan Liu and Allen Braun, neuroscientists at the U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Maryland, and their colleagues had 12 rappers freestyle in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The artists also recited a set of memorized lyrics chosen by the researchers. By comparing the brain scans from rappers taken during freestyling to those taken during the rote recitation, they were able to see which areas of the brain are used during improvisation. The rappers 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. The results echo an earlier study of jazz musicians. 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 in the paper." Bonus points for science rhymes; for anyone who has the time.
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Brain Scans of Rappers and Jazz Musicians Shed Light On Creativity

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  • by alendit ( 1454311 ) on Friday November 16, 2012 @06:18PM (#42006825)

    Rappers were the control group, I suppose?

    • No, they were used to calibrate the zero-point on the scanners.

      (I kid, just a joke)

    • by Fned ( 43219 )

      There's no need for a control group, there's no shortage of fMRI data from people who aren't rhyming.

  • No! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by X0563511 ( 793323 ) on Friday November 16, 2012 @06:18PM (#42006827) Homepage Journal

    That rhyme was terrible,
    yes, completely unbearable.

    • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

      Stop all this rhyming right now! I mean it!

    • That rhyme was terrible, yes, completely unbearable.

      Bowlfuls of ceral, writing down my serial
      key code delirious before I got serious

      Punk tried to rhyme at me, I said "why you got ipad3?"
      "I got the gingerbread, mounted to my head"
      Looking at my headrig, a gglass and he dig
      Dropped it in his twitter, ostensibly a quitter.
      Says he wrote for debian, suddenly he's rubian
      I qu8ked his shorthand, blinked twice beforehand
      A screen shot "delete me" oh how obsoletely

      Now you work for no man, lost in Homer hole land
      Missin Disney Star Wars, crying for a lost caus

    • Science be high on figurin' out why
      mah rap is bussin' a cap in the ass
      of motherfuckers makin' Darwin cry
      while I'm takin' a toke on dat grass

      Respec yo.

    • It's Friday, my day, my way or the highway,
      Can't wait to get off work so I'm letting my mind spray.
      Stuck here in my chair on some last minute shit,
      Debuggin' the fuckin' program till those breakpoints get hit.
      Go home, pop the beer, spark the la like rastafari,
      Relaxin' on the couch and watch the time just fly by.
      Get a call from work, they say the shit done turn real,
      Log into my machine, oh how shitty this must feel.

  • I want to hear MRI'in while freestylin'.
  • Entry (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I carry no props for the Blood or the Crips
    Cuz I code Hello, World in fifty different scripts
    I get money and cars and gigabytes of perks
    Til I stand up in Scrum and say "Boss, it almost works"

  • "Bonus points for science rhymes; for anyone who has the time."
    Is not a rhyme.

  • by CRCulver ( 715279 ) <> on Friday November 16, 2012 @06:35PM (#42007067) Homepage
    I'm sure this thread will have lots of blather about how hip hop lyrics are valid artistic expressions. I used to have the same prejudice, until I started studying epic poetry of Central Asia. Much of the Kyrgyz epic Manas, acclaimed by scholars in the West upon its discovery a century ago, is comparable to most hip hop artists: badly strung together recitations of how the hero has got lots of bling and bitches, and whoops the ass of his enemies.
    • by monk ( 1958 ) on Friday November 16, 2012 @06:56PM (#42007285) Homepage

      I'm sure this thread will have lots of blather about how hip hop lyrics are (not) valid artistic expressions.

      To support your argument that Hip Hop follows a long tradtion:

      LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
      of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
      we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
      Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
      from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
      awing the earls. Since erst he lay
      friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
      for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
      till before him the folk, both far and near,
      who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
      gave him gifts: a good king he!

      Beowulf (Prologue) []


      Yo! I know you heard of the Scyldings already
      When battle went down, the kings were deadly, swords steady
      Each one did whatever he said he
      Would do, and to grab onto more glory was ready.
      Scyld started their line, looked mighty fine
      Just a baby found a-bobbin' in a boat
      Grew great so kings gave him silver and gold

      The Beowulf Rap []

      • Whitey wrap from a Beowolf cluster of Zappas...

        Dreamed I was an eskimo
        Frozen wind began to blow
        Under my boots and around my toes
        The frost that bit the ground below
        It was a hundred degrees below zero...

        And my mama cried
        And my mama cried
        Nanook, a-no-no
        Nanook, a-no-no
        Don't be a naughty eskimo
        Save your money, don't go to the show

        Well I turned around and I said oh, oh oh
        Well I turned around and I said oh, oh oh
        Well I turned around and I said ho, ho
        And the northern lights commenced to glow
        And she said, with a tea

    • So, the poetry of a violent, war-like culture is similar to rap? Someone should do a study into why that is.

      • So, the poetry of a violent, war-like culture is similar to rap?

        Except the Kyrgyz were not a violent, war-like culture. At the time that the Manas tradition evolved, the Kyrgyz were a pretty peaceful nomadic pastoral society surrounded by great empires who were changing the borders all around them by force.

        • by fyngyrz ( 762201 ) on Friday November 16, 2012 @07:57PM (#42008085) Homepage Journal

          And is the translation any good?

          I speak and read Chinese, with a particular interest in classical characters. I've read, with considerable interest, the Tao te Ching in its near-original form, and also numerous English translations. I'm a martial artist, so such an expounding on "the way" is of great interest. I even suffered through a reading by Ursula Le Guin. Man, was that ever annoying. Then I had a few beers to try to forget. And I like her fiction. And I don't particularly like beer. Anyway...

          In the translations, in an attempt to make the content lyrical in English terms, and sometimes to rhyme, and sometimes to map to a particular agenda, the meaning is badly mangled — to be kind about it. The original can say something entirely mundane, and the translation gets all spiritual and freaky. It's enough to make me turn a little green sometimes.

          I wonder if these Kyrgz translations are more of the same.

          In the case of English and Chinese, the languages don't have anything even remotely resembling a 1:1 map once you get any further into them than "Ni hao", and even then... Someone probably, somewhere, might have told you Ni hao means hello... that's a very common start. What it actually means, though, is "you good" as an implied question that they do NOT expect you to answer... but if you go for "Ni hao ma" that's actually asking "you good?" whereas the first form doesn't indicate a need for an answer (compare to asking someone "how ya doin?", and they start telling you, while you groan to yourself "it was RHETORICAL, please SHUT UP!") It's not hello and it doesn't mean hello, it's just used where we would use hello. Ni hao maps a lot closer to an uninflected (non-questioning) "how ya doin" and ni hao ma to an inflected "how ya DOIN?." But you rarely get taught that, you sort of figure it out later. Well, some do.

          These mapping issues get much stronger as you get into any deeper meanings. In Chinese, that is. So... when I see translations of poetry and particularly when attempts are made to rhyme in another language... I get a little (more) cynical. :) Somehow I doubt that Kyrgyz ramblings make much sense at all in modern English, no matter what you do to 'em. That is to say, if you do enough to get them to make sense, they no longer map back to the original well.

          I can guarantee that's the case for English translations of the Tao te Ching. If you actually want to understand it, you've got a whole culture to learn, and THEN you've got to come to grips with centuries of change.

      • by Threni ( 635302 )

        Stop being horrible about Americans!

      • A violent, war-like culture?
        Why do you have to bring the USA into everything?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This is why I love the internet. Did anyone else click on this story expecting to come across a critical beatdown of Kyrgyz epic poetry?

    • by dnixx ( 2753817 )
      I used to think like you until I quit listening to "most hip hop artists" and started paying attention to the ones who stayed in the lab like Niels Bohr, his son Aage, Edward Lorenz and Leo Szilard. The ones that lyrically took rap music and turned the knob, to the right full throttle and added panache.
    • Come on, Rap is Crap...

      Until Weird Al gets hold of it, then it is ART. =)

  • This ties in with the regular hallucinations of fully-arranged original music and songs I experience when I'm waking or falling off to sleep. While my consciousness stays suppressed, the music just flows, and I get a brief insight into how it must feel to be a great improviser. This ties into the concept of The Zone, where thoughts flow organically and associatively, instead of being marshalled by the frontal lobes.

    I start to lose the flow as soon as my consciousness tries to direct things, which is unfo

  • The jazz people have been analyzed, when improvising. Pure creation.

    A rapper, even if the result is terrible, is doing the same thing, except with words.

    I do electronic music production. It's mostly configuration to be honest. But when you find the right sound and the right notes, there is a heavenly moment that is wonderful (atheist speaking here).

    What they are actually examining is Flow, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (

  • a dead salmon.

  • Just think about it deeply, then forget itâ¦then an idea will jump up in your face.

  • Could explain the heavy cannabis usage among rappers. Oh yeah, psychedelics don't enhance creativity... wink wink, nudge nudge.
  • Rap = Crap.

  • I'm sure over years, rappers must accumulate word pairings that rhyme, and phrases that slot into rhythms, much the way a jazz player rehearses patterns. In both cases, the fact is that the brain isn't fast enough to both think and execute in real time. Some of the processing has to be done beforehand, and wired in to be executed on command. The trick is to be spontaneous and assemble things in novel ways in spite of the hard wired tendency to arrange them in friendly and familiar ways over and over.

  • I've been posting stories to Slashdot for about a year now. I'm regularly on the most accepted submitter list and I don't spam the site with submissions so I guess I'm doing something right.
    I've been pretty impressed by the comments on all the stories - like many in this community I've got a PhD (protein crystallography) and/or a physical sciences background (Undergrad in physics). Like many, I'm also liberal/atheist. Comments are humorous, witty and often insightful. The level of debate is high, and move t

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