Musician and researcher Charles Limb wondered how the brain works during musical improvisation, so he put jazz musicians and rappers in a MRI-scan to find out. What he and his team found has deep implications for our understanding of creativity of all kinds.

For the research Charles looks at the brains of improvising musicians and studies what parts of the brain are involved in the kind of deep creativity that happens when a freestyle rapper or improvising jazz musician is really in the groove. Below you can read one answer from a Q&A interview with Charles Limb, followed by his (very interesting!) brief video lecture.

How did you decide to study hip hop?

I’m not somebody who’s listened to a ton of hip hop; I was much more of a jazz guy, and I listened to a lot of classical music. But I work in Baltimore, grew up around New York and went to medical school in New Haven, and I always did feel that hip hop is very much a street music, from the people, a grassroots kind of music exactly the same as jazz once as, a kind of iconoclastic music.

In some ways, rap has replaced or assumed a lot of the same sociological functions to urban youth. There are a lot of interesting musical parallels between hip hop and jazz: the rhythmic emphasis, the improvisation, the fact that the musicians are often formally untrained yet they’re incredible. The more I started thinking about jazz and the brain, rap seemed like a natural transition.

There’s never been a scientific study of hip hop ever. It’s not the kind of topic that I can glean much from other studies or the existing scientific literature.

And I have to tell you, I’ve been having a ton of fun with this study, just experientially. When we were making our beats and our stimuli, trying to design the study, there’s no way to do this study without trying to rap yourself. It really transforms the lab!