In his TEDTalk (watch now), Charles Limb reviews his groundbreaking work studying creativity and the brain — by putting musicians inside an fMRI and watching as they improvise. For the past decade, he’s been working with jazz piano players, revealing astonishing new data about the way the brain creates art. And his research has recently branched into a new genre: hip-hop. He spoke to the TED Blog about his new study, and about his day job …
How did you decide to study hip-hop?
It kind of happened very naturally. 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!
Do you see a significant difference in brains between wordless music like jazz and music with words?
Well, I have to be careful, because we’re not done with the study yet. We’re still trying to recruit more rappers …
How are you recruiting rappers for the new study?
I have been slowly infiltrating the Baltimore hip-hop scene. There’s a well-known beatboxer named Shodekeh — he’s performed with the Baltimore Symphony — he and I got to know each other at a symposium at the Visionary Art Museum and we got to talking. I actually told him, “I’m thinking of doing a laryngeal study of beatboxing.” He connected me to one rapper, and just through word-of-mouth, I’ve been getting slowly connected with the scene. I’ve talked now with about 12 professional freestyle rappers, and we’ve studied about half of them.
Given the image Johns Hopkins has as this conservative medical establishment, in an inner city but not of it — the idea that there’s a lab that wants to study hip-hop, I think there’s something appealing to the community.
And I have to tell you how appreciative the musicians are. They really have a vested interest in seeing this research succeed. Because they have thought all along that what they’re doing is important. And they themselves have wondered all along: “Wow, how am I doing this?” They enter an altered state. And what they’re generating off the cuff is just remarkable. They are fascinated by understanding how they do what they do.
Actually, A Class said an interesting thing to me. We were finishing a study, and I asked him in a post-study interview, “Is there any last thing you want to say?” And he turned real serious and he said, “Hip-hop has a bad reputation. Just give us a chance. We’re really good people and we have a lot to say.”
As for other subjects, I would love it if we could get some really well-known freestyle rappers. If Eminem wants to be part of this study, I’d fly him over!