Neuroscience of the human brain while freestyle rapping

Using brain scans, scientists are trying to find how great freestyle rappers drop dope lines. Discovery News reports on a study conducted by researchers the voice, speech and language branch of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Here's the paper: "Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap." (via Clive Thompson; image photoshop mine from original study)


  1. This is an interesting follow up to studies conducted by Charles Limb on improvisation. He did a TED Talk regarding his studies and this looks like a replication of those results. As someone who is also doing research studying similar phenomena, this is very exciting and  promising news.

    1. The study is trying to show a contrast the difference between the brain while it is rapping something that is already known and rehearsed against times when it is rapping words that are made up along the way. It’s less about trying to find out what the brain is doing while rapping and more like trying to identify what the brain is doing while being creative. Think of it this way:

      (brain_rapping + improvisation) – brain-_rapping = improvisation 

      The end result is about improvisation (or optimistically, about creativity) not about rapping. One of the collaborators in this study did the same thing with Jazz Pianists. (jazz_piano + improvisation) – jazz_piano = improvisation. 

      If the results are similar in nature, then they are getting at what it means to generate something creatively absent any specific act. The challenge is finding a way to get people in an MRI doing something that you can assess as creative. In theory, it could be extrapolated to be happening in painting or dancing but it’s harder to fit someone’s brain in a scanner being perfectly still.

  2. “Spontaneous improvisation is a complex cognitive process that shares features with what has been characterized as a ‘flow’ state”
    interesting that the scientists and rappers both independently decided to use that word.  the rappers use “flow” specifically to describe their unique style, but also to describe rapping well e.g. “he was flowing,” “he had the flow,” which certainly is a reflection of the proper mental state.  must be something in the zeitgeist.

    the thing about the use of foam padding during the scans to keep their heads from bobbing was pretty good.  they made a point to note that all the subjects were right-handed, too.  this was by design because lefties and their different types of brains would skew the results, or just happenstance because righties dominate the population?

    curious if the results would change at all by studying recognized world-class freestylers vs the local guys that they rounded up.  video related, it’s a world-class freestyler:

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