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Baba Brinkman & Dr Heather Berlin

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rapper and poet who is best known for combing science and literature with hip-hop music.  In 2009 he wrote and performed ‘The Rap Guide to Evolution’ which was deemed the first peer-reviewed rap show.  His show ‘Ingenious Nature’ played to critical acclaim off-Broadway in 2012.

Dr Heather Berlin is an American neuroscientist who obtained her doctorate in experimental neuropsychology.  She works on research in psychiatric disorders and the neural basis of creativity and consciousness.  She is currently an assistant professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

The husband and wife team of Brinkman and Berlin have devised and performed a number of shows together incorporating rap and neuroscience and the brain science of creativity.

 I was really curious about what was going on inside his brain while he was rapping.

Baba – Neuroscience is the science of everything that happens in the brain, and neuroscience is presented on stages and so is rap, so I guess Heather saw me doing a rap and got curious about what was happening in the brain during rap and I was curious about that and so…

Heather – Yeah, and I was always interested in the neural basis of creativity and particularly creative…spontaneous creativity, improvisation.  And freestyle rap is a great example of improvisation, so I was really curious about what was going on inside his brain while he was improvising.

So before I became interested in creativity and the brain, I was studying the neural basis of consciousness and unconscious processes.  Things like repression, suppression, association.  And so the more I started looking at the unconscious brain the more I became curious of, ‘How does the unconscious information bubble up into consciousness’ and improvisation is a great, sort of, behaviour in which we can really study that process.

Baba [free styling on the busy Edinburgh underpass]


I’m coming through, this is Baba’s story

I’m diving off the top of a bus with a double storey

Call it double decker, I’s got to check ya

Baba Brinkman freestyling off the top of a record.

See, this is how I just chill and play CDs at home

And other times do outdoor interviews with Cosmic Genome.

I gotta just connect it together, whatever the weather.

Actually this is pretty nice

Yesterday it was raining

No pleasure

As we handed out fliers

No amplifiers necessary

I got the vocabulary to tell the tales of Canterbury

And I step up

I’m not a bloody G

But I am a rapper with a scientist wife who studies me.

Heather – Ha!  So Baba’s great as both my husband and my lab rat and sometimes I have him do tests just for fun.  Other times it’s for research.  But we learn…what’s going on in his brain when he’s rapping is there’s actually a dissociated pattern of activation in his pre-frontal cortex.  And what we see is that there’s increased activation in a part of the pre-frontal cortex which has to do with the internally generated stimulus independent information.  So it’s coming from within. He could close his eyes, he doesn’t need any external information, and that part of the brain is generating that information.

But then the other part of his brain, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is down regulated.  And that part of the brain has to do with your conscious awareness.  You’re monitoring your behaviour to make sure it conforms with social norms.  It also has to do with self awareness.  So when you’re in an improvised state, your self awareness is turned down and you’re not conforming your behaviour to social norms and it allows the free, unfiltered generation of information to come from within.  And at the end you have to…it has to obviously make sense, it’s not random words, so you do have to have a bit of consciousness there, but it’s just turned down a bit. 

Baba – Does lack of self awareness create other problems in our life, honey?

Heather – That’s a very good question!  Actually, one of the enduring things about Baba is that he’s very uninhibited and un-self aware.  Um, a lot of people try to get into that state with a lot of things, like alcohol or drugs, and people really enjoy losing their sense of self.  There’s something about performers, though.  They can get into that state much easier than other people.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re in that state all the time, it just can mean that they’re better able to access that brain state than others.  But it’s hard to say.  They actually might be extra, more self aware when they’re not in that state and therefore really enjoy getting into that state when they’re not self aware.

Baba – Yeah, OK, so this is a little bit from an interpretation of Alison Gopnik’s book, who studies developmental psychology.   

Check it out, I’m gonna tickle ya

In the Amygdala

See your brain is a promiscuous explanation seeker

Like an infomaniac, it’s desperately eager

To get its tentacles into something that makes sense

No rest for the insatiable, it stays drenched in stimuli

See, if you want to get a person actively enquiring 

Investigating their environment 

They need the wiring

That gives them that fire

That burns in their stomachs, 

That need to know

That makes them squirm when they’re flummoxed

And makes them yearn for that information access

And makes them feel good when they find answers

Even if they only have half of the story 

Even if some of the answers are masturbatory

If the problems of life get solved, overall

The promiscuous mental modules will get installed

In the brain

Which feeds a need to believe

That things have been explained

And then it came

And that makes the god part of the brain

The ultimate pleasure tickler

Because apparently God explains


In particular. 

For Baba Brinkman

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For Dr Heather Berlin

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