I’m feeling cynical today. I think I’ve read one too many fMRI studies. The latest faddish paper is on what the brains of freestyle rappers look like — they compared the brain activity of people reciting memorized words vs. improvising, and guess what…their brains are doing different things during those functions.
What did their brains look like?
No matter what they were rapping about, their brains "activated differently during the improvised flow versus the memorized lyrics," says Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience. When subjects were freestyling, the medial prefrontal cortex — an area associated with organizing and integrating information — showed an increase an activity. Meanwhile the dorsolateral region, which helps with "self-control, self-monitoring, and self-censoring," showed a decrease in activity, adds Pappas. (This area became more active when the rappers were reciting memorized lyrics.) Also active while the subjects freestyled were the brain areas associated with language and motor control ("no surprise given the rappers had to think of words and produce them with the muscles of the mouth and jaw"), and the amygdala, which is the brain’s center for emotional activity.
What does that mean?
"Like jazz musicians, the rappers’ brains were paying less conscious attention to what was going on but had strong action in the area that motivates action and thought," says Sarah Zielinksi at NPR. But unlike jazz musicians playing instruments, the left hemisphere of the brain — where language is processed for most right-handed people — demonstrated a dramatic increase of activity. In other words, says Jon Bardin at the Los Angeles Times, "high-level executive function is actively bypassed to allow for a more natural, spontaneous output of language" — the brain essentially turns off its own censors. There’s an "absence of attention," said Braun. "When the attention system is partially offline, you can just let things fly and let things come without critiquing, monitoring, or judging them."
You know, there’s nothing really wrong with this work: it’s not bad science. It’s just pointless science. It’s settled that we have this technology that can monitor variation in blood flow in the functioning human brain, and that’s nice, but what are people going to do with it? So far, it seems to be simply crudely phenomenological, with investigators stuffing people’s heads in cylinders and asking them to do X, Y, and Z, while we all coo over the pretty colors the computer paints on the screen.
The results of this study, for instance, are completely unsurprising…and they also don’t tell me what should be done next, other than bringing in artists in other genres and seeing what their brains do. Which wouldn’t tell me anything other than more correlations between brain blotches and behavior. I’m not seeing any new questions arising from this work, which to me is the real hallmark of interesting science.
But seriously, I hope someone develops a portable fMRI helmet, so we can take someone and strap it and a pair of waterskis on them, and jump them over a shark. And then we can do a reading of people in an episode with a Special Guest Star that ends with them waking up from a dream as the two leads get married in a very special finale.