The Freestyle Brain

Back in September, my friend Alex was hanging out with me and a few others while I was freestyling with my man Gabe. Being a jack of all trades and a master of none, I hope it does not come as a surprise that I dabble (of course dabbling guarantees that I will remain an amateur). Regardless, we were having a great time, and Alex, being a neuroscientist, asked what the hell is going on in my brain while I improvise? And as an answer to her question, today, she sent me an email about an interesting study entitled “Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: an fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap”.

And out of that, comes to you the very first 45 Brains post that mixes my two passions: music and neuroscience.

Like pretty much all scientific papers out there, this study is full of jargon and tech-speak. But the basic finding is simple to understand: some brain regions become more active when you freestyle and these are different from the brain regions that become active when you perform a memorized piece. So what? Well, it turns out that these patterns of activity are reminiscent of those found in jazz musicians when they improvise versus when they perform set pieces. That is, the brain may improvise jazz and emceeing in the same way. If you are Myka 9, then this is not news to you; indeed, his freestyle form is highly influenced by jazz and may be entirely founded in it.

It’s easy to appreciate the similarities between freestyling (language-based improv) and jazz (instrument-based improv). Both forums are vehicles for on-the-spot musical creation. Indeed, they serve as methods for spontaneous self-exploration of one’s creative powers and limits. And it seems the brain may control improv, and therefore tap into creativity, in similar ways, regardless of your creative technique, canvas, or vehicle for expression.

But I might be speculating too much now.

I love that scientists have to quantify everything

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