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This is your throat on beatboxing

By Madison Park, CNN
updated 4:42 PM EDT, Thu September 27, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nate Ball wanted to see how his body is able to beatbox
  • At TEDMED, he had a laryngoscope lowered into his larynx
  • Ball said human bodies are incredible machines with endless possibilities

(CNN) -- Nate Ball, an MIT-trained mechanical engineer, wants to find out how things work -- even when they're inside his throat.

A two-time NCAA All-American pole-vaulter, former host of a PBS show, entrepreneur and co-founder of a company -- Atlas Devices, which creates powered rope ascenders -- Ball is also a beatboxer.

He manipulates his voice to make deep, baritone sounds and robotic noises. He fluctuates from quick staccato beats and deep bass to buzzes and record-scratching sounds.

"Beatboxing is one of the most natural things I can imagine a person doing," he said. "We're rhythmic beings through and through. We walk in rhythm, our hearts beat in rhythm."

Ball's philosophy is that human bodies are "incredible machines capable of amazing beauty. ... The possibilities are endless," he said at TEDMED, a conference about great ideas in health care in October.

"When I'm beatboxing, it's fun to add elements: scratching like a record, there's beats, talking while you're doing a beat -- which is not easy to do on the fly," he said. "That's what beatboxing is all about. It's about putting together all the crazy noises you can possibly manage and making it sound cool."

Other than being fun, Ball wondered: How does it all work?

To figure out what's happening inside his brain, he went inside an fMRI, an imaging machine that can show brain activity through blood flow.

When he performed a beat from memory, his brain activity was different from when he improvised. When he created a beat on the fly, the brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-monitoring, shut down. But other networks in his brain activated, including the cerebellum, which handles motor coordination, and and the temporal lobe, which is involved in auditory perception and emotional response.

But Ball wanted to find out more -- What's happening inside his throat to form those sounds?

To get a closer look, he had a fiber optic camera lowered through his nose to investigate at TEDMED. This wasn't his first time getting a laryngoscopy. With the camera inside his body and an image projected onto the big screen, Ball continued to beatbox.

The camera showed it wasn't only the vocal cords that help to create sounds.

"Making the robot voice, I thought my vocal cords were vibrating, flapping at a low frequency," Ball said. When he growled or let out a deep hum, his arytenoid cartilage and other tissues nearby his vocal cords also vibrated.

"It's fascinating and captivating and gross," he said. The video is not for the squeamish, since you can see lots of human tissue and saliva. But it shows how the human body works.

"It's this thrilling edge of discovery," he said -- even when it's inside your own body.

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