Inside the brain of a beatboxer

By Anna-Marie Lever
Health reporter, BBC News

media captionTake a look inside the brain of Reeps One as he beatboxes

Brain scans of a professional beatboxer, who performs by imitating electronic instruments vocally, suggest the skill is an expert behaviour.

Scientists compared the brain activity of UK champion, Reeps One, with that of a novice, while they both beatboxed.

Reeps One mostly used two brain areas, including the cerebellum - responsible for learning complicated movements.

The novice used many more brain areas, suggesting a need to plan each sound and a lack of automatic processing.

image captionCerebellum activation in Reeps One (yellow) compared to a novice (pink)

Dr Carolyn McGettigan, a neuroscientist at University College London, compared magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans during two tasks - counting and beatboxing.

Dr McGettigan says: "When you think about an expert you might think they activate extra bits of the brain - not just the bits you use to make sounds, but something exciting and different that you might not expect."

Highlighted brain

The results suggest something different.

Both participants, when beatboxing compared with counting, showed increased brain activity in the primary motor cortex.

This part of the brain is used to control movements of the body, so would be involved in moving the lips and tongue to make rapid beatbox sounds.

But Reeps One also showed focused and heavy use of his cerebellum, while the novice used several other areas across the brain.

This suggests the novice's lack of expertise as she needs to think about and plan each sound, while Reeps One can perform automatically from all his years of training. The sound sequences are already embedded in his brain.

Dr McGettigan says: "At the very early stages of this study we have some indication that here we have an expert.

"We have someone who has learned a motor skill, who has practised it for every day, over many years.

"We can see this reflected in the very clean focal activation of the primary motor cortex and cerebellum.

"What we have at the moment is a demonstration that being an expert doesn't mean you activate more of your brain. The phrase 'less is more' is sort of appropriate here."

Scientific recognition

image captionReeps One: "I got addicted to imitating instruments to make music"

Reeps One, the stage name of Harry Yeff, has been beatboxing for about eight years.

He says: "Beatboxing is my job, my love, and my passion. It was just a bit of fun when I started, a simple enjoyment.

"I guess one point of this experiment is that I can actually say to people, 'I have been defined as an expert', not just in a professional sense but in a scientific sense. I have had doctors prove it.

"The fact that I have rehearsed this enough to adapt the way my own mind works is a gratifying thing. I'm proud of it."

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.