Edinburgh Fringe 2017
The unlikely combination of rap and neuroscience turns out to be an absolute winner.
Not sure how to generate an audience for your free Fringe gig? Got something quite interesting to get across that might seem slightly too challenging for the average punter, too nerdy or scientific even? Not sure how to differentiate what you’re trying to impart from all the others operating in your genre, in this case, comedy?
Well, try a title that catches the eye. Introduce intrigue into your Fringe programme entry. Put two concepts together that appear completely incompatible. And have something really interesting and relevant to everyone to discuss.
Off The Top – Neuroscience With Attitude has followed this guidance to the letter but got here by a somewhat serendipitous route. Eminent neuroscientist Heather Berlin wasn’t consciously looking for anything other than someone willing to have their brain examined when they were performing one task in order to see what happened when it was challenged with a simultaneous and potentially conflicting activity – she researches brain behaviour relationships.
Enter Canadian cerebral rapper Baba Brinkman, who was happy to have Berlin fire cognitive challenges at him as he rapped both to a script and in free form. One thing then led to another (marriage and two children, to be precise) and so here they are in Edinburgh as a dream team giving a packed Ciao Roma audience some insights into how the most powerful muscle in our body operates.
And what a fascinating hour it turns out to be. First up, as we squeeze ourselves into every last nook and cranny, we have brain facts flashing on the multi-media screen in front of us. Did you know that your brain stops growing when you hit 18? That’s a long time ago for quite a lot of those present. Or that being stressed is really, really bad for the brain and its ability to function to anything like its full potential? The benefits of music as a brain power enhancer? The fact that the brain accounts for 20% of your calorie burn and the same in terms of oxygen consumption?
As Brinkman introduces us to the humour that can be found in the cerebral, scientific rap, Berlin dovetails this neatly to the Stroop test, how the brain deals with conflict, for example, trying to say the colour of a word written in a different colour to that which it relates (a phenomenon difficult to illustrate in the black and white text on a theatre review website).
She then goes on to demonstrate just how difficult doing two things at once can sometimes be. Using Brinkman and a willing volunteer out of the front row, she found a rap that they could both work with, then set them a series of potentially conflicting cognitive challenges, visual, mathematical, memory and then trying to write about one subject whilst rapping about another. And, yes, you’ve guessed, it gets harder as you go through this list, to the point where the last challenge is almost impossible, particularly when tasked with freestyle rapping. It’s like a computer running out of CPU – everything slowly grinds to a halt.
This is a great hour of really fascinating neuroscience delivered at machine gun speed by a lady who is clearly at the cutting edge of her profession, mixed with some interesting rap delivered with real skill by a performer with a keen sense of comic timing. The focus here was on rap but it could have equally applied to other free-form genres in the performing arts, such as improv and jazz.
And is there a secret to accessing the part of the brain that drives this free-form creativity? Chill, relax, think of something else, do something else and just let it happen. So, I’m off to do just that. So will you be once you’ve checked out this top flight bit of what might best be described as edutainment.