Can I see an fMRI from a man jumping over a shark next?

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.


  1. Jerry says

    This is what happens when people who have a new toy, I mean expensive research tool, want to justify the purchase. It’s human nature. Just got a new car? Then you ‘need’ to drive three blocks to the market to get one stick of butter instead of walking. Or maybe they needed just one more publication to make the next grant application look better. (Yes, I are a syentest, how did you guess?)

    And PZ, you’re fooling no one. If this was an fMRI study of cephalopod brains (rapping?), then you’d have been ooohing, aahhing and showing the pictures.

  2. machintelligence says

    The truly important question is whether different parts of the brain are involved when someone is telling the truth vs lying. Could we be on the verge of a real lie detector here?

  3. eoleen says

    Cummon P.Z. Neuroscience is still in the “stamp-collecting” stage… Like biology and chemistry were all those many decades ago. Let them play with their toys: that is what the early alchemists/chemists did, and look where it has gotten us.

    And do I need to rehash the stamp-collecting stage of biology???

  4. says

    A lot of what is today considered to be the pinnacle of applied science started as “pointless” playing with whatever the particular scientist took fancy of. Darwin started his with “pointless” collecting of facts about different animals from around the world and found out many of completely “unsurprising” facts, like that parasites are good at being parasites, pollinators are good at being pollinators etc. It was much later when he saw the underlying principle connecting these – partially already known facts – in completely new, and definitively surprising way.

    And sometimes there are indeed suprises where there are none expected.

    So while this research might be pointless, it also might not. I definitively would not scoff on any scientist for researching what they find interesting.

  5. franko says

    Let me toss a wee grenade in the pool. Like fMRI, sequencing whole genomes of multiple organisms is also only a tool. It supports a lot of great current and future research, but on its own it doesn’t address important questions.

    Zinc avenger: rap is spelt with a silent ‘c’.

  6. nobody says

    I don’t get it. How can a trained scientist find more information about the world pointless?

  7. alexanderz says

    OK, here’s a question off the top of my head:
    We know that rap is more misogynistic that other genres [pdf] and there is a debate whether this is culture driven or is it a product of the music industry. What type of rap is more sexist? Where do you see more sexism – when the person raps uncensored or when they think more about their words (i.e. are they intentionally sexism and sensationalist or not)? What does it mean for the industry vs. culture debate?

  8. says

    I’d be happy if someone would develop a sort of standardized way of doing these studies, geared towards eventually collecting enough information to someday be useful. Sort of like the way multiple photographs can be compiled into a single big picture, and how the current state-of-the-art movie restorations use adjacent frames to guide repairing each one. It would be nice if serious and less-serious guides could all be combined somehow to give a real map to brain activity, where even frivolous crap could give valid data points.

  9. Artor says

    I had always assumed that the value of what appears to be pointless studies is that they build up a body of information that can be referenced by later studies. When someone is building a more complete map of brain activity, they can reference the earlier, “pointless” studies for their data, rather than having to extract a huge body of various data points all over again.

  10. says

    Brain-worshipping has become a religion in recent years. These guys are the “catholics” and such studies are their obligatory ritual flim-flam. PZ is a “protestant” by comparison.

  11. GodotIsWaiting4U says

    It’s unsurprising and matches our predictions…

    But even the most mundane predictions still need testing, because they COULD still be wrong.

  12. John Morales says


    Vijen, “Brain-worshipping”?


    (You do realise not everyone perceives reality through a religious prism?)

  13. erikthebassist says

    I’m feeling cynical today.

    You should have stopped right there. This post was complete rubbish, and I think Novella would tell you so.

  14. consciousness razor says

    I want more brains. BRAAAINS!

    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.

    “Genre” isn’t very well-defined anyway, but it’s not as if that would have to be the only musical difference people would be interested in.

    I want to see brains of experienced jazz and legit musicians sight-reading written music, and the same interpreting written materials they’ve had practice with. Then improvising stuff they have (and haven’t) done before, some with a predetermined form, some without. And some experienced musicians (maybe “professionals”) from non-Western cultures without formal theory or training, doing the same kinds of activities.

    Then more brains, because finding out how they work in different situations doesn’t seem pointless at all.

    I don’t know how to make it work to put, say, a trombonist in an fMRI though. Time to get cracking, engineers.

  15. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I see Vijen the would be guru is still as irrelevant as ever. Maybe that would change if it decided to pay attention to reality, not self-delusion…

  16. consciousness razor says

    This post was complete rubbish, and I think Novella would tell you so.

    Would Novella say rap is crap? That might be motivating some of the rubbish about its “pointlessness.”

  17. erikthebassist says

    Would Novella say rap is crap? That might be motivating some of the rubbish about its “pointlessness.”

    I have no idea if he likes rap, demographically speaking he probably doesn’t, but I’m not sure where you’re going with that. Are you implying PZ’s hidden motive to trash this study is his dislike of rap?

  18. F says

    Hm, no. There are already metric craptons of studies, fMRI and otherwise, which are already replicated and show all these unsurprising elements. So yes, frivolous.

    Now, if you wanna claim it was done as an (expensive) form of communicating science, I might buy that.

    But what is this? Noes! PZ works on zebra fish? Yes, I’m sure he’s busy endlessly replicating the same study. (Wait, I’ve got it. How does expression of genes Q1 and Q2 vary during development of rapping zebra fish? What about jazz-playing or public-speaking and improvisational stand-up comic zebra fish?)

  19. erikthebassist says

    meh, I can’t really finish the discussion, I’m off to play some poker.

    There’s an fMRI study I’d love to see by the way. Could a brain scan tell the difference between a bluffer and holder? Hrmmmm, I bet it could.

    Anyways, toodles. I still think this post was rubbish.

  20. consciousness razor says

    Are you implying PZ’s hidden motive to trash this study is his dislike of rap?

    I said it could be, but I don’t know what his motives are. He’s certainly not taking something about the subject seriously.

    I don’t think it’s just a matter of fMRI results he doesn’t think he could work with (and already knew the answers, which he could work with). Like Jerry said, a similar study of cephalopods (or something else he’s interested in) probably wouldn’t get the “pointless” treatment.

  21. John Morales says



    Are you implying PZ’s hidden motive to trash this study is his dislike of rap?

    I doubt PZ particularly dislikes rap, since he has featured videos of it.

  22. says

    @John Morales #19
    The preposterous notion that: fMRI… heterophenomenology… Gee! computers!… blah-blah… miscellaneous hand-waving… somehow amounts to a demonstration that consciousness “emerges” from brains: this is indistinguishable from any other kind of religious faith. I am simply calling a spade a spade.

  23. John Morales says

    Vijen @30, the only claim here is that different cognitive activities involve different areas of the brain; PZ’s OP about this paper boils down to ‘Duh — what a surprise!’.

  24. consciousness razor says

    Vijen, you’ve been commenting here for a while, and you’ve never gotten around to giving any evidence for whatever you’re peddling. What is your position anyway?

  25. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    somehow amounts to a demonstration that consciousness “emerges” from brains: this is indistinguishable from any other kind of religious faith. I am simply calling a spade a spade.

    What religious faith? Where is your imaginary deity? If it doesn’t exist, and you can’t prove it exists with solid and conclusive physical evidence, the only one with faith is you, as faith is required without evidence. There is no evidence that consciousness is anything other than the manifestation of wetware. You haven’t shown otherwise with evidence, just made vague claims which *POOF* are dismissed without evidence.

  26. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I think poor Vijen doesn’t understand the Null Hypothesis. In this case, the Null hypothesis is that consciousness is a manifestation of the wetware called the brain. Any other hypothesis, such as a collective consciousness, requires solid and conclusive physical evidence to supplant the null hypothesis. And the burden of evidence is upon Vijen, who is making the claim, to either provide said conclusive physical evidence, or shut the fuck up on his claim…

  27. stevenbrown says

    I always thought that checking out the things that seem obvious, like different parts of the brain lighting up when we do different things, is an important part of investigating things. What if, against all expectation, they found that the same parts of the brain light up when doing improvised rap?
    I’m not a scientist but I was under the impression that a lot of cool stuff has been found out because of unexpected results.

    And even if similar things had been done before… Isn’t that part of the scientific method? Checking things that your peers have already done to make sure it’s repeatable?

  28. says

    @the usual suspects #31-4

    There is nothing like “collective consciousness”. Purely as a metaphor, think of it as more like cognitive dissonance writ large. Consciousness is single, but enjoys* pretending to be myriad. Nothing else has any independent existence: energy, matter, bodies, minds, concepts, consciousness – all the same!

    Someone is conscious: can you deny it? Who is it? Those who make a sustained effort to find out experience an integration which subsumes what you currently consider “evidence”.

    * Another metaphor is of a cosmic game, or leela.

  29. John Morales says

    Vijen the would-be gnome: “@the usual suspects #31-4”

    But you just claimed there is a single suspect within which you are subsumed — blame yourself, if blame you must, but don’t pretend to pretend.

    (Also, there are no comments, there is but a comment-thread — no, wait! There is no comment-thread, there is only cosmic pretense by the One Consciousness)

  30. Amphiox says

    Ah, Vijen. Still on his quixotic, zen-like quest to master the art of using as many words as possible to say nothing.

    And steadily improving with practice.

    Bravo! Bravo!

  31. Dhorvath, OM says

    John M,

    I doubt PZ particularly dislikes rap, since he has featured videos of it.

    I would wager that the videos PZ has featured with rap in them is outweighed by those with a religious or otherwise woo character. Your construct here doesn’t make sense.

  32. John Morales says



    Your construct here doesn’t make sense.

    Good point, I should have disambiguated by noting he has featured videos which rely on the genre in an approbative manner.

  33. vole says

    Much publicity in the UK recently for this technology being used (in Canada I think) to communicate with sufferers from locked-in syndrome. They can answer binary questions by imagining either that they are playing tennis, or that they are exploring their house room by room. The two patterns of brain activity can be distinguished. By this method, one such patient was able to tell his family that he was not in any pain.

  34. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Someone is conscious: can you deny it? Who is it? Those who make a sustained effort to find out experience an integration which subsumes what you currently consider “evidence”.

    Word salad, all of which we know the meaning of, strung together into an incoherent mess without meaning.

  35. comfychair says

    What should be done next is an fMRI study of people involved in competitive eating contests. Much better combination of pointless activities than fMRI and shark-jumping.

  36. erikthebassist says

    How can it not be valuable to understand the subtle differences in brain activity while doing various activities? The goal after all is to reverse engineer the brain. There can’t be enough of this data afaiac given the complexity of the brain.

  37. erikthebassist says

    Vole Novella blogs about that on NeuroLogica, my gut instinct was that it would be bunk, kind of like facilitated communication, but it turns out there’s some merit to it.

  38. JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness says

    This vital work may finally enable us to locate the part of the brain responsible for rap, and develop treatments to help these afflicted individuals.

    Even with sarc tags, this comment makes me really uncomfortable and don’t think it’s okay.

    OK, here’s a question off the top of my head:
    We know that rap is more misogynistic that other genres [pdf]

    Wait…are we reading the same pdf? What I got from that is rap music is more explicit and obvious sexism than other genres but I don’t see anything that means it’s just plain more sexist than other genres. Other genres use metaphors and codes but the sexism is still there. It shows the numbers for rock and country music. The difference is those genres have settled into the cultural accepted sexism like dismissing women’s emotions using the PMS excuse. The highest rate of portraying women as equals or in a positive light is by women country singers at a rate of 50%.

    It even says in the conclusion rap stands out not for the rate of misogyny but for how graphic the depictions are. So rap is more graphic and overtly sexist but that’s not the same thing as saying it’s more sexist. It just makes a more controversial and easier target to fight against while the accepted “vanilla” sexism in other genre just slides by.

    I’m all for fighting against sexism in music (and in general. I just find signaling rap out suspicious and unhelpful. I want sexism in every genre pointed out as wrong. I think a more comprehensive approach is needed. Finding people criticizing and hating on rap is easy, finding that same response to country/rock/pop music is scarce. I actually can’t think of any push back against other genres for sexism off the top of my head while naming those fighting against the sexism in rap is easy.

  39. erikthebassist says


    80’s rock was over the top in use of women as sexual objects and the way it used rape imagery. (Winger – She’s Only 17, Van Halen – Hot for Teacher, just to name a couple of examples).

    It was interesting that the men singing and performing this music were doing their best to look like the women they objectified. I wonder if there’s any study of the psychology behind that? Did they think that by having teased out long hair and wearing makeup that their misogyny seemed less offensive?

    Point being, I agree with you 100% that misogyny in music is by no means limited to limited to rap.

  40. erikthebassist says

    btw, Buddy Rich did once say that he was allergic to two things, peanut butter and country music. If you don’t think there’s a lot of hate directed at country, hang around with some jazz musicians.

  41. nohellbelowus says

    Your computer displays pretty pictures and makes interesting sounds. Why? Ultimately, because the microprocessor is executing instructions at the machine-code level.

    The computer is a decent metaphor for the brain, and therefore it makes sense to study fMRI images in an attempt to understand how the brain works. I’ll even go a tentative step further (and it’s along the lines of machintelligence‘s comment in #6).

    Eventually, I believe it would make scientific sense to supplant human language utterances, for instance (which are merely outputs similar to the sounds emanating from a computer) with precisely-mapped neural patterns in the human brain. A few examples may be helpful (because I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about…):

    1) Is this Buddhist monk in a “Zen” trance — or is his brain demonstrating catalogued Pattern X33-B4-909, which has also been exhibited in the brains of expert archers and master painters? Which explanation yields more insight?

    2) You’re not “jogging” — your brain is executing Pattern W7-G5-125, which has been shown to be active in swimming, walking, and even standing still.

    3) Is this man truthfully recounting his actual experiences, or is his brain displaying Pattern L22-Y3-083, which has been identified as a strong feature of deceptive behavior and lying?

    We attempt to employ language to describe ourselves, when it may be more scientifically precise and ultimately informative to replace cumbersome and ambiguous grunted-ape-sound-waves with neuronal patterns. Why should human language be considered a priori more useful and interesting than the low-level programming of the brain?

    I think it’s just because we’ve had no other option — until now. By the way I’m finished manifesting Pattern T88-D3-767 (typing on a keyboard, but also exhibited in piano-playing and, in rare cases, masturbation).


  42. Jerry says

    christophermoss (comment 11):

    Good luck getting a 1.5 Tesla magnet into a wearable helmet!

    Careful with that… In 1950, you could have said “Good luck getting a 1 kHz computer circuit into a room.” In 1900, you could have said “Good luck flying without a balloon.” Want me to go on? This is a technological challenge, not something constrained by physical laws.

    BTW, yes, I was a bit snarky in my comment #2, but I think most basic science research should be encouraged. Zebrafish, rap fMRI, cephalopod development, who knows today where they can lead us, when semiconductors and lasers were once considered useless?

  43. alexanderz says

    @JAL: Snark, Sarcasm & Bitterness

    This is what I read:
    “Although women are presented as subordinate to men in a majority of rock and country songs as noted earlier, rap stands out for the intensity and graphic nature of its lyrical objectification, exploitation, and victimization of women…
    Rare are lyrics that describe women as independent, educated, professional, caring, and trustworthy. Although the majority of songs in the original sample did not contain misogynistic lyrics, even these songs failed to present women in a favorable light. In other words, absence of misogyny does not equate with a positive representation of women.”

    Also note the absence of female rappers (only 13 out of 403 songs were by women) and only one song (by Eve) was targeting misogyny.

    I stand by my claim: more extreme victimization of women + absence of female artists + absence of positive female characters = more misogyny.