A study of 12 experienced freestyle rappers suggests that a special neural network is activated in the act of improvising lyrics

Whether or not you enjoy rap music, it’s hard not to admire when a skilled rapper exercises his or her ability to “freestyle,” improvising rhymed, patterned lyrics over a beat without external guidance. Professional rappers will, in many cases, carefully compose their lyrics on paper prior to recording or performing a song. However, alongside this kind of careful composition, “freestyling” is a crucial component of the art of rap, and has been since the early days of the genre. At its best, freestyle rap is thrilling in its spontaneity and profound in its ingenuity.

Ever wonder what brain processes are at work in a task that seems so difficult to execute with ease and aplomb? A new study by the voice, speech, and language branch of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), took a close look at the brain activity of rappers when they improvise lyrics in real time.

In particular, increased brain activity was observed in the medial prefrontal cortex, which regulates how thoughts and actions are motivated. Additionally, decreased activity was found in the dorsolateral prefrontal regions of the brain, which supervise and monitor activity in other parts of the brain.

The findings, which will be published in the November 15th issue of the journal Scientific Reports, show what appear to be a special series of neural connections that occur during rapping. These connections appear to be involved in not only freestyle rapping, but in the execution of creative, improvisatory endeavors in general.

A number of areas of the brain are working in concert during “freestyling,” but it’s not a phenomenon unique to expert rappers, say the researchers. “For both experts and novices, we saw similar brain activity,” explained Dr. Siyuan Liu, Ph.D., who led the research team alongside Dr. Allen Braun, M.D., who was also involved in the study. “We don’t think it’s something special to experts, although experts may have more training.”

“There’s a similar pattern, whether you’re an amateur or expert,” said Braun. It’s not an issue of whether one is capable of producing the pattern, he said, but rather “how you capitalize on it, [and] whether you’re trained or not.”

Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the research team observed the brain activity of 12 freestyle rappers, each of whom had at least five years of experience.

An identical musical track—a beat, eight bars in length—was given to each of these artists. They were asked to perform two tasks. In the first task, they were to improvise rhyming lyrics and patterns with only the musical track to guide them. The second task required that they use the beat to perform a set of lyrics they had already composed and rehearsed beforehand.

In addition to the activity patterns observed in the prefrontal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal regions, higher levels of activity were observed in the amygdala (which is associated with emotion), the perisylvian system (which is involved in the production of language), and the cingulate motor areas (which are involved with action). The different types of activity taking place suggest the presence of a complex neural network that needs further study in order for its nuances to be better understood.

The principle finding of the study is that a number of notable changes in brain activity take place when a rapper improvises lyrics over a musical track.

The forms of brain activity observed in this study, however, are not unique to freestyle rapping, as Liu and Braun pointed out in conversation with Healthline. As far as brain activity, said Braun, “there’s nothing truly unique about the creative process in [freestyle rap] experts—it’s something that’s available to everyone.”

The patterns observed are likely characteristic of all sorts of creative activity, not just rapping, or the related arts of poetry and storytelling. As Liu and Braun pointed out, everyone is creative on a day-to-day basis, having to exercise problem solving and ingenuity in all kinds of activities that likely involve the same brain processes.

As far as the researchers are aware, there have been no other studies of this kind. Future studies, said Liu and Braun, will hopefully examine other ways in which language is creatively shaped and conveyed, such as poetry-writing and storytelling.