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Review: Beatboxing and the brain. Missing the beat

Posted on 04 August 2011 by Dr Paul

For this post, I would like to illustrate a common mistake in the representation of science.

I know, I know. Not exactly the tone you thought I would be aiming to strike on this piece but, as this blog progresses, I’m certain many more of my grievances will begin to surface, so get used to it.

Recently the well-known beatboxer Reeps One stepped (or rather slid) into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) unit to have his brain scanned whilst performing a beatbox routine. The results of the scan demonstrated that the motor cortex and cerebellum become more intensely active during his beatboxing and so these regions are likely to be involved in orchestrating the process.

This sort of experimental evidence comes entrenched in all the usual caveats about it being coincidental rather than causal evidence and the fact that an fMRI doesn’t actually measure neuronal activity but rather the rate at which blood becomes deoxygenated (or ‘used’), but I won’t bore you with those. Frankly they are both obvious and tedious.

What I do take exception to is the sort of ‘egg-and-chicken’ interpretation of said results.

It is well established that the motor cortex is involved in the control of movements (that’s why it’s called the ‘motor’ cortex) and that the cerebellum is involved in precision movements and particularly the learning of fine motor manipulation. It comes as no surprise then (to neuroscientists at least) that both of these areas might be implicated in a process that involves the precise simultaneous movement of several different muscles during a learned process.

What does come as a surprise is how that evidence is relayed. During the BBC coverage of this pioneering research, the journalist and the researcher (and the beatboxer, although he is justifiably less knowledgeable in such areas) appear to be implying that because the motor cortex and the cerebellum may be involved in this process, that means that the behaviour is an expertise or a specialist skill.

Er. Hang on. The more astute of you will quickly notice that, regardless of the results of any brain scan, a professional beatboxer is an expert in their field. Had the brain scans results been different, would we have refused to have called Reeps One an expert at beatboxing? Would we have immediately assumed that we can beatbox as well as he can? No, because the reason Reeps One was in the scanner in the first place is exactly because he is considered an expert in his field.

These results merely strengthen previous work that has demonstrated the link between learned fine movements with both the motor cortex and the cerebellum.

In other words, the expert in the brain scanner demonstrates what it means to be an expert, not the other way round.

I am sure that this is a misinterpretation by the journalists in question and that the actual research paper will not venture to assert what is implied in the BBC article. I just thought it was important to tell you when science research was being mislabeled.

To see the article in question go to the BBC website.

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