Baba Brinkman: Edinburgh Fringe Spotlight

Baba Brinkman has rapped lyrical on climate change and human nature; his latest show explores one of the greatest mysteries of all – consciousness

Feature by Ben Venables | 26 Jul 2017
  • Baba Brinkman

Just as a novel or film can transport us to another time and place – a dystopia, a medieval court – where will Rap Guide to Consciousness take us?

Rap Guide to Consciousness takes you to a small place that turns out to be massive: the human brain. The show is still all about people and what they strive for, but there’s an added perspective of 'and here’s why, at the level of neurons' that is simultaneously unsettling and intriguing. You may have listened to rap, but have you listened to rap that’s explicitly about the brain activity that produces rap and its impact on the neurons of listeners as they listen to neuro-themed rap? Anything you can do, I can do meta.

Does the knowledge of neuroscience and consciousness help you better use your own brain on a day-to-day basis, or is it of no practical use?

The practical benefits of this knowledge are vast! For instance, only once this information is absorbed can you write and perform a comedy hip-hop show about it at the Fringe. Also, it’s useful for fixing the brain when it’s broken and stuff.

How do you clear your head at the Fringe?

Hanging out with my kids does the trick. I have two kids under four who will be up there with me this year, and they are manifestly not worried about audience sizes, reviews, or other Fringe logistics, so if I can tune into their wavelength for an hour or two a day, I’m zen.

Have you read the book Inside Jokes by Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett and Reginald Adams, which is about humour and consciousness, and what can humour teach us anything about the human mind? 

The important lesson here is that one’s instincts for humour are not improved in the slightest by reading a book that contains a biological and neuroscientific account of humour’s origins and functions. Nothing spoils a good joke like explaining that it’s really an evolved response that exists to identify and dispel hidden false beliefs and distortions in our perception and cognition, which triggers an associated dopamine response from the basal ganglia because on average our ancestors enjoyed survival and reproduction benefits when their delusions and hypocrisies were revealed, in small, relatively safe, minimally transgressive ways. So when I read Inside Jokes I thought, 'fascinating, but not necessarily helpful'.

But when creating this show I found the neural and evolutionary perspective does give me a new depth of appreciation for humour as a specific kind of design challenge, and maybe that extra enthusiasm translated into the desire to take extra risks, try things out, and generally participate in comedy in ways that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Is there anything about consciousness that neuroscience can’t explain?

So far there are things about consciousness that neuroscience hasn’t explained, at least not in full detail. The main example is the neural code, i.e. the specific patterns of individual neurons that correspond to a particular thought or feeling. At present we can read a few neurons or a few dozen with electrodes, and we can read millions at a time with fMRI or EEG, but we can’t track their activity at the medium-range level that counts. But eventually I think the brain will yield up all of its secrets.

By analogy, there used to be the “mystery of life” and speculation about "animal spirits" or some kind of energy or “life force” that accounts for the difference between being alive and being dead. Now we have the sciences of metabolism, homeostasis, reproduction, etc, and life isn’t so mysterious. For a snapshot of the state of the consciousness studies right now, come check out my show; if you can’t make it to the Fringe, I’m also recording an album version, which you can pre-order here.

Baba Brinkman's Rap Guide to Consciousness, Assembly George Square Studios (Two), 2-28 Aug (not 15), 5.40pm, £8-£10
Off the Top: Neuroscience with Attitude, PBH Free Fringe at Ciao Roma, 5-27 Aug (not 14), 1pm, free