Music of the Mind

Psych Lecturer Raps About Cognitive Neuroscience

Baba Brinkman, 40, is a white, middle class, Canadian hip-hop artist who raps about prevailing neurobiological theories of consciousness. He’s a lot less insufferable than that combination of descriptors might make him sound, notwithstanding the fact that his work resembles a pop-science article your mom texts you about, saying how she thought it was something you might be interested in. His Rap Guide to Consciousness, performed in Vollum lecture hall on Friday, October 27, is like a tolerable version of a TED talk: delivered by someone who’s not completely full of themselves, who happens to be really into cognitive neuroscience and the applications of Bayes’ theorem, and who wants to actually engage with you about them, often by waxing lyrical, or talking enthusiastically.

Clad in a black tee with a brain and its stem printed on the lower left side, Brinkman performs Consciousness in front of a mic while an extensively produced video, which complements his verses, projects over him. Throughout Consciousness’s 80 minutes, he maintains a game kind of energy, utilizing the entirety of the stage and establishing a flow to the show, which is structured by 13 songs.

Both entertaining and legitimately informative, Brinkman’s show oftentimes resembles a more mature, hip-hop-oriented variant of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Consciousness originated from six months of extensive research into the cognitive psychology and neuroscience of subjective experience, looking into the history of each field and their recent developments. The resulting original script and lyrics were sent to experts in the respective fields (including his wife Dr. Heather Berlin) for their comments, edits, and approval before making his “peer-reviewed” show and corresponding album. In the Q&A session after the penultimate song, Brinkman discussed, among other things, the ethics of vegetarianism, the distinction between collective intelligence and collective consciousness, and his understanding of consciousness as the accumulated effect of a number of different neural functions performing successfully, all of which were incorporated into the evening’s freestyled denouement.

Brinkman is highly conscious of his identity as a white, 40 year old, middle class, Canadian rapping about science, sometimes to a fault. It is perhaps an inevitable result of pursuing a profession that faces continual demands to conceptually justify itself. This might prove grating if not for the clear impression he gives that his persona is unfeigned and genuine. He’s just talking and rapping as who he is, free from the insecurity that leads the vast majority of white rappers to come off as inextricably try-hard. His earnestness might similarly prove tiresome if not for the recognition that he knows his stuff, cares about it, and is passionate about expressing it. Though you get the sense that you’d just as soon talk with Brinkman about neurobiology and hip-hop at a bar or a friend’s Saturday afternoon potluck, his method of delivery is continuously engaging, presenting its assortment of complex topics as both generally accessible and eminently explorable. I left wanting to take another psychology class.

The Rap Guide to Consciousness, in 15 track album form, is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, Soundcloud, and is available for purchase on iTunes and Bandcamp.

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