We performed a functional MRI experiment in which rappers were asked to memorize a novel series of rhymes, or spontaneously generate rhymes incorporating a random cue word, all to the accompaniment of a rhythmic beat.
During creative freestyle improvisation, rappers demonstrated functional activation in language areas, sensorimotor regions and deactivation in prefrontal cortical areas that were distinct from those changes observed during memorized rapping. This study has been enlightening and, frankly, a blast to pursue — freestyle rappers are just an incredibly creative and interesting group of individuals! Their attitude has been great as well. Rather than being put off by the idea of a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital studying rap, they’ve been completely into the idea of it. They also deeply want to understand how their brains work, just like I do.
BW: So could people learn to be more creative by shutting down the self-aware parts of their brains?
CL: Well, it’s interesting that children are less inhibited and, in many cases, more creative than adults, but they have that trained out of them as they get older. At first they don’t have the capacity for self-monitoring and self-awareness, but then when they get self-conscious, they lose their ability to improvise. But there’s a difference between having a creative idea and being able to execute it as you want to and not really having a defined idea of what you’re trying to achieve. A child’s creativity is different than an adult’s. When does something have artistic value? Usually expertise is something we expect in art if we are to value it, so a child’s creativity is not valued in the same way as an adult’s, for example. But I believe that we don’t emphasize the creative process enough in our education system.
BW: Could furthering our understanding of musical improvisation be used for purposes other than understanding creativity?
CL: I’m a hearing specialist, and I believe that studying music may be the key to understanding how we hear. There’s nothing more difficult to hear and process than music — it’s more complex than speech. If we can understand how people hear and understand music, we could learn how to diagnose and assess the brain and improve hearing. For example, you can give a deaf person a cochlear implant and train them to achieve speech reception quite easily, but music is much more difficult. Implants are designed for speech but that provides limited hearing ability — musical pitches people hear with implants so far aren’t accurate, and they usually can’t differentiate between instruments, for example.
BW: What are your plans for future investigations?
CL: We need to get more research funding first! While a lot of people think it’s an interesting subject area, there’s no natural funding agency for the type of work we’re doing. Creativity is so important, but even big funding agencies say that it’s not part of their mission. This is incredibly shortsighted, as creativity is one of, if not the most important neural processes that humans display — it’s what defines humanity. I’d like to investigate the process of improvisation in multiple domains — to see whether it’s the same or different in a painter, a cartoonist, a novelist, and so on. Also how an expert’s brain behaves during creativity compared to an amateur, a child’s creativity compared to an adult’s, and more. There’s so much work to be done in this area — I could do a lifetime of experiments just in relation to music and creativity. But it’ll take a collective effort, a new way of thinking, to actually get anywhere on this.
Thanks to Dr. Limb for providing the video of a functional MRI of a hip-hop artist.