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Scientists scan rappers' brains as they're improvising

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What’s going on in our brains when we’re being creative? To find out, neuroscientists scanned the brains of rappers. Nature News reports.

Siyuan Liu and Allen Braun at the U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Maryland, asked a dozen rappers to improvise a song with unrehearsed lyrics -- freestyle rapping -- while inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

The rappers also recited a set of memorized lyrics. When these two types of brain scans were compared, the researchers could see which areas of the brain are used during improvisation.

Artists showed lower activity in part of their frontal lobes called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during improvisation, and increased activity in another area, called the medial prefrontal cortex. The areas that were found to be ‘deactivated’ are associated with regulating other brain functions.

“We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity,” Braun says.

The findings might also explain why new music seems to be created of its own accord. With less involvement by the lateral prefrontal regions of the brain, the performance could seem to its creator to have “occurred outside of conscious awareness.”

The results are similar to previous imaging studies with jazz musicians. The team wants to look at poets and storytellers.

The work and some of the brain scans were published in Scientific Reports last week.

[Nature News]

Image: Marcin Wichary via Flickr

— By on November 19, 2012, 1:44 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure