I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of using MRI to observe the brains of rappers when they freestyle. It hasn’t quite happened yet, but perhaps it will soon – Charles Limb and Allen R. Braun have been observing the brains of jazz musicians when they improvise, and they have expressed interest in extending their research to rap and other artistic activities.
The scans revealed a wealth of other information that was both unexpected yet unsurprising to anyone who has witnessed a musician close his eyes and seemingly enter a trancelike state as he bares his musical soul on stage. Brain regions involved with all the senses lit up in the improvising test subjects; thus, even though a performing musician may lose track of her actions, she is at the same time in a heightened state of awareness—tasting, smelling, feeling the air around her.
“It’s fascinating because we see these same patterns during deep REM sleep,” Braun notes. “It’s tantalizing to think some connection exists between improvisation and dreaming, which are both spontaneous events. These musicians may in fact be in a waking dream.”
This connection is perhaps more apparent in improvised poetry than jazz forms, because the words said aloud have a concrete meaning in the language, and the combination of various words in free association leads to a dreamlike sense of thought spoken aloud. While most conversation is also improvised, it is much more dependent on non-verbal markers and emotional rapport, and leans less on the pure wordplay and rhythmic control that defines rap.
Further reading: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.