Scientists have used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the neural mechanisms of spontaneous lyrical improvisation in a group of freestyle rap artists. The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggest that this form of improvisation is associated with a unique functional reorganization within the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with planning complex cognitive behaviour and decision making.
Freestyle rap, a popular form of hip-hop music, requires an artist to freely improvise rhyming lyrics and novel rhythmic patterns, guided by an instrumental beat. Siyuan Liu and colleagues studied the neural activity of a group of freestyle rap artists as they performed two tasks, each of which used an identical musical background track: a spontaneous, improved freestyle rap, and the conventional performance of a learned, well-rehearsed set of lyrics.
The authors find that the neural correlates of lyrical improvisation include changes in prefrontal cortex activity, which may enable spontaneous creative activity by modifying systems that regulate attention, affect, language and motor control. Lyrical improvisation seems to be characterized by altered relationships between regions coupling intention and action, in which conventional executive control may be bypassed and motor control directed by cingulate motor mechanisms. In addition, this activity pattern appears to evolve over time and is modulated by the innovative quality of the subjects’ performance. These functional reorganizations may facilitate the initial improvisatory stage of creative behaviour, the authors suggest.