Mindfulness Meditation and Hip Hop
Self is illusion, music’s divine
Noosed by the strings of Jimmy’s guitar
I swing Purple Hazed pendulum
Hypnotizing the part of I that never dies….
– Saul Williams
What do mindfulness meditation and freestyle rapping have in common? If you answered “Both are associated with increased activity in the middle prefrontal cortex,” you’re right!
Dr. Siyuan Liu led a study recently published in Scientific Reports, describing the neurological activity of twelve experienced freestyle rap artists. (1) The researchers monitored the rappers’ brain activity with fMRI imaging while they improvised lyrics over an eight-bar musical track, and compared their findings to the subjects’ brain activity while they performed pre-written lyrics over the same music. Science Daily reports:
During freestyle rapping, the researchers observed increases in brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for motivation of thought and action, but decreased activity in dorsolateral prefrontal regions that normally play a supervisory or monitoring role. (2)
This study caught my intention because Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, has persuasively hypothesized that the middle prefrontal cortex, a brain area which encompasses the medial prefrontal cortext, is strongly associated with mindfulness meditation. Dr. Siegel believes that synaptic growth and activation in the region are stimulated by years of meditation practice.
Siegel associates the middle prefrontal cortex with nine forms of attunement: body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, empathy, self-knowing awareness, fear-modulation, intuition, and morality. (3)
Notice that Liu et al. report decreased activity in the “dorsolateral prefrontal regions that normally play a supervisory or monitoring role.” This finding is significant, because it suggests that as mindfulness increased in the freestyling subjects, their self-identification with their thoughts and ideas decreased at the same time. As they became more creatively engaged and self-aware, they became less self-identified with their passing thoughts.
This is precisely what was observed by Farb et al. in another brain activity study of mindfulness practitioners. (4) Participants in the study were asked to reflect on the self-reflective meaning of a series of words, and those who were inexperienced in mindfulness meditation showed an increase in activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal regions, while experienced meditators did not.
Siegel comments on the study:
The coupling of these two regions suggests that without training, we are often unable to remove ourselves from the narrative chatter of our busy minds and distinguish ongoing story narration and mental time travel from immediate experience of the present moment. This narrative neural activity suggests that without mindfulness training people may naturally continue to be unable to ‘just live in the present’ and instead are filled with ruminations and self-referential judgments. (5)
I would speculate that any creative act of sustained and focused awareness functions as a kind of yoga, and leads to an increase in creative activity accompanied by a decrease in identification with the discursive self. This is what the Zen master Eihei Dogen described as “the wholehearted engagement in the way,” or the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “flow states.” Liu et al. do not mention mindfulness or meditation in their findings, but they do refer to “flow states” twice in their article. (1)
A disciplined and sustained creative focus is therefore associated with long-term personal transformation of consciousness. This is something artists have intuitively known about themselves for a long time – probably for as long as there have been artists.
When I recently heard Bill Viola speak, for example, he reflected favorably on his experience living in Japan, observing that “it was a culture that had mastered the art of getting the mind out of the way, which you have to do in order to create.”
One doesn’t want to make too much of scientific findings of this kind, which are merely suggestive – especially at this stage in the research. For starters, it is not always clear what increased activity in any localized area of the brain necessarily means, and most of the functional correlations described in this post are either hypothetical or not well understood. But the data are suggestive, intriguing, and congruent with some of the best hypotheses around regarding the neurological correlates of mindfulness.
Thanks to Don Salmon of Remember to Breathe for pointing out that I confused the medial prefrontal cortex and middle prefontal cortex.
1) Liu S, Chow HM, Xu Y, et al. “Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap“. Scientific Reports 2, 15 Nov 2012.
2) NIH/National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (2012, November 15). This is your brain on freestyle rap: Study reveals characteristic brain patterns of lyrical improvisation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 19, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121115133154.htm
3) Siegel DJ. The Mindful Brain. W. W. Norton and Company. 2007. pg. 191.
4) Farb NAS, Segal ZV, Mayberg et al. “Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference“. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 December; 2(4): 313–322.
5) Siegel DJ. “Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being“. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 December; 2(4): 259–263.