My favorite rapper this midterm season is Eminem. His flow and wordplay speak to me like well-written poetry. Recently, I’ve personally found poetry to be the most objective style of literary analysis, making it the type of literature I find most beautiful and exciting to explore. After reading a paper (All references will be to this paper) titled “Brain activity and connectivity during poetry composition” that tried to understand the creative process mechanistically, I wanted to bring together some of my favorite hobbies: neuroscience and poetry. This process broke down the generation, revision, and analysis of poetry in a holistic manner by tracking brain activity with fMRI, which looks at brain activity by assessing changes in blood flow. The paper taught me how to steal Eminem’s flow and it’s your job to steal it too.
Every great work requires a lot of thought. When I imagined how Eminem wrote my recent favorite piece, “Walk on Water”, I imagined him sitting down in a dark room, scribbling out rhymes on a scrap of paper, piecing together fragments of the piece. In the air, you could feel the tangible pressure of the songwriting process. Deep in his mind, the medial prefrontal cortex is firing, responsible for spontaneous thought, generating couplets and testing new ideas. This region of the brain turns off “cognitive control” so that the writer can more freely produce references without restraint. Also, this area of the brain, which is highlighted during poetry generation, is more strongly highlighted in fMRI brain scans of experts, demonstrating a stronger ability to “turn off” the part of their brain that mediates self-monitoring, planning, maintenance, and manipulation of working memory. In order to steal part of Eminem’s flow, all we have to do is replicate losing “cognitive control”.
I was introduced to Eminem’s genius last year by Andy Nguy. You can find his blog here (https://absurdpoet.wordpress.com/) His analytical pieces on poetry inspired these next couple paragraphs of analysis which also add my own take on the cognitive process of writing poetry.
Eminem’s first stanza starts :
1 Why, are expectations so high? (8)
2 Is it the bar I set? (6)
3 My arms, I stretch, but I can’t reach (8)
In the midst of the craziness of life, it’s easy to fall under the impression that you’re not doing enough, that the image other people have of you is false, and that you lack the capacity to reach your full potential. Eminem initially settles into the well known and comfortable common meter (8 syllables followed by a line with 6 syllables) to ease us (the listener) into the song. In my interpretation of the first line, Eminem also feels the pressure that his fans place on him, much like the pressure that we place on ourselves to excel at classes and extracurriculars. The question on the second line, “Is it the bar I set?” has a double meaning. The bar that he sets is both the baseline against which he is judged and is also a measure of music in rap.
But sometimes he doesn’t live up to his own expectations. In fact in the next lines he explains just how far he is from them.
4 A far cry from it, (5)
5 Or it’s in my grasp, but as soon as I grab, squeeze (12)
6 I lose my grip like the flying trapeze (10)
The strangeness of line four is explained by the fact that it has 5 syllables, a slightly jarring departure from common meter. Also in line 5, we have an instance of “trochaic inversion”, where instead of emphasis on the even syllables, we see it on the first and fourth syllable of the first two measures, which also departs from normal common meter on a local scale. Eminem admits to us that he is far from matching the expectations others expect of him, breaking down the common meter at the same time he begins breaking down from their expectations. Part of my personal, subconscious interpretation of lines five and six hears Eminem’s “gr” consonant sound repeated, leading to a gratifying conclusion to the tercet.
7 Into the dark, I plummet (7)
8 Now the sky’s blackening, I know the mark’s high Butta – (11)
9 Flies rip apart my stomach (7)
As he continues with the imagery of falling farther into the darkness, Eminem hits on a bit of creative genius that was my personal favorite part of the poem. In line 8 the line, “I know the mark’s high Butta- ” sounds like the phase “I know the mark’s high but I- ”, and the way that he follows it up with “Flies rip apart my stomach”, breaking the word butterflies into two parts, (Butta- Flies) just as he describes his stomach being ripped apart is absolutely mind-blowing. The word that is physically torn apart by the line break in the process of being figuratively torn. This type of artistic creativity is unparalleled, like he says in the song “Beautiful”, his legacy will undoubtedly be “one tough act to follow”.
In the act of analyzing Eminem’s poetry technique, it is likely that our dorsolateral prefrontal and parietal executive systems (DLFPC) start firing like crazy. This region of the brain, is described by the paper to be responsible for the revision part of the poetry process. It reasserts cognitive control in order to improve the results of the generative phase in steps. Turning on the DLFPC increases our top-down attention, attention that has been curated by previous experiences, which in turn allows us to pick apart the bars of music. I find that this distinctive separation between creativity and revision appears simple, but explains some mental processes that I previously had no basis of understanding. For example, the act of brainstorming before structuring writing, a method that @Mars swears by, works because it physically separates the part of writing that is creative (the brainstorming crazy ideas), and the part that requires organization (the act of outlining the ideas). Strangely, this simple neurocognitive model presented by the paper structures the way we think about being creative.
10 Knowin’ that no matter what bars I come with
11 You’re gonna hark, gripe, and that‘s a hard Vicodin to swallow
12 So I scrap these, as pressure increases, like khakis
13 I feel the ice cracking, because
In the final four lines of the stanza, Eminem sounds close to despair. Part of Eminem’s life struggles come through in his music because he’s never afraid to confront failure. This pressure of innovation comes through. For example, in line 11, if you look at the emphasis of the lines, you see that if you split the line in half, the first and second half of the line are lyrical (sounds) reflections of each other. Finally, in lines 12 and 13, the kha- sound and king- sound both are repeated onomatopoeia of ice actually cracking. (Try saying the lines out loud!)
The neurocognitive model that separates the distinct process of generation and revision of poetry makes the act of freestyle rapping all the more impressive. Since both generation and revision generally require separate parts of the brain to be functioning at different times, I think that observing an fMRI of an individual freestyle rapping could be key to understanding some of the complexity of expanding working memory. In a very similar way, some of the best scientists of any field are able to process new information very quickly because they are able to hold and manipulate complex components of new systems in their minds.
The beauty of poetry doesn’t stop at Eminem’s bars. It extends to experimentation and into the very way we think. Think for a second. What kind of controls could you even run to establish a baseline for normal cognitive function? How would you separate the noise of spontaneous cognition out of your model or spontaneous motor function?
The beauty of the way that these researchers achieved their goals is evident in the simplicity of their controls. Their controls included random typing, which controlled for spontaneous motor function, and generation of random, factual information, which controlled for the noise of spontaneous cognition. As simple as their controls sounded, there’s a certain beauty in simplicity, akin to listening to a satisfying couplet by Eminem.
The secret to stealing Eminem’s flow is really no secret. This paper showed that the process by which we come up with poetry is the same one that professionals use. It feels reassuring yet strange that the only thing that professionals rappers do better than us is utilize their brains better and more efficiently. This brings us to the secret that only practice works. Practice and repetition are the keys to Eminem’s kingdom
You came with hopes to steal his flow,
Take some small steps nice and slow.
- Liu S, Erkkinen MG, Healey ML, et al. Brain activity and connectivity during poetry composition: Toward a multidimensional model of the creative process. Human Brain Mapping. 2015;36(9):3351-3372. doi:10.1002/hbm.22849.