Unwrapping the Rapper – fMRI Reading of Creativity

Mike Eagle, aka Open Mike Eagle is a Los Angeles rapper who calls his style Art Rap: Every word that has come to me…it was born in a nightmare… 

Eagle was one of twelve freestyle rap artists who participated in an experiment conducted by researchers at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health in Maryland, USA.

The artists performed—immobile inside a functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) machine—twice, firstly improvising lyrics to a background of beats and secondly a memorized piece. The same 8-bar instrumental track at 85 beats per minute was used as background in both cases. The theory is that the improvising brain would show a different pattern of activity from one that is merely recalling memorized material. This indeed was the case. See report here in Nature Neuroscience. 

Confirming previous research findings, the improvising rappers all showed decreased activity in their dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a front part of the brain associated with ‘executive’ function, usually inhibitory. Increased activity occurred in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), in the front middle of the brain. At the same time, many more brain areas were also active, even the motor areas, indicating the complexity and unity of the brain-workings at that moment. Nevertheless this much seems clear to me: this pattern of activity, or the brain areas involved, cannot be exclusive to rapping. It must underlie many other creative, free-associating activities, from painting, sculpting, designing scientific experiments to formulating theories, to generally solving problems. Our brain is just not large enough to dedicate one physical area to a single task. And surely, most of us don’t rap!

Yes, we may have witnessed a possible process of creativity but no, we still do not know the kind of substrate (cells? synapses?, memory molecules?) which supports that; or how it was triggered. Furthermore, fMRI is an indirect, approximate imaging device with a resolution of only a few millimeters (the size of a neuron is < .1 mm); with a typical 3-D unit of measure containing a few million neurons. fMRI really just estimates the blood flow in various areas, higher flow indicating more activity. It collects no information on the interior of the neurons or how they interact. And finally, the need for the subject to be immobile and lying inside the fMRI chamber precludes measuring any other creative activity like painting or sculpting.

But still, being able to observe the creative process rather than its one product, art, (or ‘beauty’) is a huge step forward. As we can see from the current literature, the very sexy field of neuro-aesthetics is under grave attack. Many scientists question the plausibility that there’s a ‘beauty center’ in the brain dedicated to art appreciation; or, more seriously, that there is a universal set of criteria for beauty. See Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty,  and Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul Our brain simply could not dedicate any single large portion to just one function—there are too many important things in life, not least food gathering and perpetuation of the species, aka feeding your family.

But the universality of the creative process is something that we all have observed time and again, without the aid of high tech. Take Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC on August 28, 1963 (This week is the 50th anniversary). Dr. Clarence B. Jones, who helped craft the speech, describes King’s shift of attitude in the midst of the delivery:

“He then takes the papers off the lectern, he then moves the papers to the left, and then he grabs the lectern with both hands…His whole body language shifts… he became more relaxed… [He then took] his right foot and started moving against his left leg… some preachers do that…”

The resulting speech that electrified a nation almost didn’t happen. According to Jones, King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ had not been included in the speech that day. It was Mahalia Jackson, King’s favorite gospel singer and muse, who yelled from the audience, in the midst of a ferment of sentiments in the gathered crowd: Tell’em about the dream, Martin, tell’em about the dream… She put a crack in the dam and King led the flow—the audience’s emotions became a torrent. King improvised the rest of the speech, quoting entirely from memory and riffing like the best of jazz masters, rapping to his own beat: Free at last…Free at last… The speech is worth listening to again and again.

Jones says of Martin Luther King during the speech: It was like he had an out-of-body experience. That is exactly how Allen Braun, co-author of the original NIH research paper, described the rappers during the improvising performance:

“We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural defocused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity…the performance could seem to its creator to have ‘occurred outside of conscious awareness’ [… ] Spontaneous improvisation is a complex cognitive process that shares features with what has been characterized as a ‘flow’ state”.

The importance of this rapper experiment is not only that it opened the door for a way to look into creativity, but also helped to give the process a more precise definition. And it also gives force to doubts that beauty, or aesthetic criteria, can find a universal center in the brain. But most of all, we may now be that much closer to discovering finally what art is, and whether it is ‘authentic’.

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