How did it happen?

This study is part of a larger area of study by researchers at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health. Previously, the researchers have studied Jazz improvisation in their explorations of brain activity in moments of creativity and improvisation.

As Daniel Rizik-Baer, co-author on the study, sat in his parents’ living room in 2008 in Los Angeles, his mother pointed out an interesting article in a science publication. This article featured the study of Jazz improvisation that the researchers had previously conducted. The article discussed the purpose of their research- to explore improvisation and creativity and their relationship to speech disorders. As a hip-hop producer in LA, this immediately got Daniel’s mind working on other ways the researchers might be able to explore the brain and creativity using improvisational language activities similiar to the jazz musicians’ impriovisation- freestyle rap (the art of rapping improvisationally with no pre-meditated words or phrases).

Daniel sent Dr. Alan Braun an email letting him know his interest in the study and to bring up his thoughts on freestyle rap and its applications to his researchers. Dr. Braun was open to the idea and wanted to learn more. Over time, Dr. Braun and Daniel emailed back and forth, first exploring the possibility, then postponing exploration due to other circumstances. Finally, after many emails , Dr. Braun contacted Daniel to begin a pilot study. Daniel and a rapper who he had worked with in the past- Michael Eagle aka Open Mike Eagle- flew to NIH in Bethesda, Maryland to consult with Dr. Braun’s team to develop a pilot study  methodology for the experiment. Both Daniel and Mike had previous research experience, which helped greatly.

Daniel and Mike helped to identify the important parts of freestyling, how it worked, where it came from, vocabulary, and ways in which MCs performed. All of this information helped the researchers to identify exactly how they were going to study the act of freestyling, the variables and controls, and some of the obstacles, such as the need to severely limit rappers’ movement inside the fMRI machine. This period proved to be an incredible cross-cutlutral exchange in which the researchers were able to inform the producers about the equipment used and some of the methodology while Daniel and Mike were able to shed light on freestyle and hip-hop culture.

Once they got the results from the pilot, they were convinced that it was an area of study worth exploring. The team then worked together to further develop the methodology and to coordinate 12 MCs in the Washington D.C. region to participate in the study. Once the 12 MCs were coordinated, they were asked to come into the lab to freestyle according to the methodology developed.

And that is how hip-hop and science came together to further our understanding of how the brain works.



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