Saturday, 17 November 2012

Freestyle Rap: Where in the Brain is Creativity?

Jonathan Smith

Creativity, according to blogger and The Oatmeal comics creator Matthew Inman, is like a river that has input constantly flowing in and out of it. Rather than being a finite ‘container’ of ideas, it is a dynamic entity that changes throughout your waking day. 

Despite being a trait that is central to many professions, such as writing, art, and music, creativity is not well understood in cognitive neuroscience. Where do ideas come from? How is inspiration encoded in neuronal networks? One recent study in Nature (summarized here) set out to investigate aspects of these questions by performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on freestyle rappers. The fMRI imaging used in this study detected blood flow (increased blood flow corresponds with increased brain activity) to regions in the brains of twelve male freestyle artists in two scenarios. In the first scenario, they performed memorized predetermined lyrics to a backing track as a non-creative control and in the second, they performed freestyle rap and the differences in brain region activity were measured. 

An interesting finding of the study was that the cortex at the front of the brain (prefrontal cortex) showed different changes according to which region it was. Prefrontal cortex close to the line separating the two hemispheres of the brain (medial) was activated whereas prefrontal cortex further from the middle of the brain (dorsolateral) was largely deactivated. One explanation for this might be that the imposing executive functions of the dorsolateral cortex are reduced, allowing the flow of ideas from other parts of the cortex. It is a bit like stern parents going away for the weekend and leaving their wild child in charge of the house.

A similar pattern was seen in another study investigating the brain patterns of jazz musicians. Would this pattern of activity happen in other creative processes such as painting a picture? This is not known, but it would be pretty interesting to find out.

Other findings from this study suggested that a large amount of the creative processes are in fact below the conscious level as activity could increase long before lyrics were being generated. This seems to agree with the experiences of improvisational performers who often cannot pinpoint an exact source of their ideas. So in conclusion, if you are searching for an innovative idea for your next project or essay, just stay away from your parents for a while and let the inspiration flow!