Your Brain on Improv: Reach Optimal State with Seven Aspects of Spontaneity
Researchers are discovering that what happens during improvisation, be it through instruments or the spoken word, has a lot to do with feeling free from stress. It makes us more in sync with an optimal state that has been called flow. This is drama as liberating, creative play. This is improv. Drama, along with other creative arts therapies like dance and music, has been shown to lessen anxiety.
The brain gets active during improvisation. Whether it is with a musical instrument or with the spoken word, many areas of the brain get busy, particularly the medial pre-frontal cortex. There is a lot going on in that region. This is why the researchers at Johns Hopkins University are putting improvisers and their brains through their fMRI machines.
Daniel J. Siegel, MD, in “The Mindful Brain”, relates several key functions of healthy living to processes of the Middle Prefrontal Cortex: Body Regulation, Attuned Empathic Communication, Emotional Balance and Regulation, Response Flexibility, Insight (integration of the emotional limbic system with the cortical storehouse of autobiographic memory), Fear Modulation, Following Intuition/Gut Instinct, and Morality, which he describes as sensing and acting in accord with a larger social good. That’s a lot to be sure, and we are far from clear on what exactly is happening in the brain.
The activity doesn’t stop with the Medial Pre-Frontal Cortex. Connections network to the cingulate motor, perisylvian cortices and amygdale, a potential circuit linking motivation, language, affect and movement. The most evident behavior that seems to be occurring is a kind of relaxed, integrated brain/body functioning that allows for playful creativity in the company of others.
Improv and Anxiety
What does not get active during improv is the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex. That part takes a break. This is the region of the brain that shows more activity among people who describe themselves as inhibited and prone to stress and anxiety. This region also has show exaggerated activity in those with schizophrenia. This part shows less activity during improvisation.
This is very promising, though far from conclusive. Yet the science does connect with the real life experience of people with anxiety. I recently worked with an adult woman who has struggled with social anxiety for much of her life. She decided to try an improv class and sought my help to process and integrate her experiences in the class so that she could better apply lessons of the class to her life.
What we discovered together is that she felt more free playing a role. Playing someone besides herself allowed her to interact in ways she would have judged to be ‘obnoxious’ in her real life. Yet all her experimentation in-role brought no negative consequences.
Being in role wasn’t the only liberating part of improv, there was also the focus on playing games. For this woman focusing on playing the game replaced being critically self-conscious, and released her from a self-imposed pressure to make some sort of exactly correct choice in social interaction. There are many improv games. I use them selectively in my practice as do other drama therapists. The values of improv are exactly in line with what science seems to be showing us is happening in the brain.
The ‘How to’ of Improv
Here are some of the operating values of improv (with some quotes from others I happen to like), as derived from Viola Spolin’s original work, Improvisation for the Theatre, written in 1963 and still followed today,
Viola Spolin’s Seven Aspects of Spontaneity:
A. Accept feelings, thoughts and suggestions that you and others have. Say ” Yes, and… “.
B. Look for the rules of any given social situation and enjoy it as you would a game.
Observe what others are doing, then try it out yourself.
” We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing. ” – Anonymous
2. Go beyond approval / disapproval – or – right / wrong thinking.
A. Accept and use everything as grist for the mill.
B. Leave behind avoiding, defending, or fighting your way through a problem.
C. 90% of the answer is in the question. Use what is there.
” The subject matter is the teacher…Everything is grist for the mill. Use what is there.” – Viola Spolin.
3. Express as a group. Embrace basic human interdependence: we thrive – we are healthier – when
we look to each other, listen to each other, share with each other, and build together.
A. Be a part of the world. Notice things. Note details.
B. Make your associates look good.
C. Build upon each other’s contributions. Build upon words already spoken, and
actions already taken.
” God gave us two ears and one mouth and we should use them in the same proportion. ” – Irish Proverb
A. Make a concrete experience of feelings and ideas.
B. Give sight, sound, taste and shape to our concerns.
” Show us. ” – Viola Spolin.
5. Practice varied techniques for dynamic awareness and communication.
A. Practice exaggeration, association, metaphor, and the wearing of other people’s shoes.
B. Build a knowledge in your bones that there are many ways to do and say one thing.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. ” – Albert Einstein, theoretician.
6. Involve Your Audience.
A. Look and listen to your audience.
B. Participate in the experience with your audience.
” My job is not to come up with funny things to make you laugh. My job is to point out the things you already knew were funny – you just forgot to laugh at them. ” – George Carlin, comedian.
7. Carry the Learning Process into Daily Life.
A. Practice techniques each day as a random habit. B. Make play out of work, not work out of play.
” You can’t think and hit the ball at the same time. To really hit, you have to just get out there. ” – Yogi Berra, baseball player /manager.
By now many have heard the improv mantra “Yes, and…”. It is the counter to the externally and internally experienced voice of “No”, “Stop, or “Yes, BUT”. The tools of brain imaging seem to be point like traffic arrow leading us to improvisation as one way to help get the green light on in our heads. I know of many with anxiety who have benefited from finding the right kind of drama to be involved in, and I hope to see many more.
Liu, Siyuan, Chow, Ho Ming, Xu, Yisheng , Erkkinen, Michael G., Swett, Katherine E., Eagle Michael W., Rizik-Baer, Daniel A., and Braun, Allen R. (2012) . Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap. Scientific Reports, 2 : 834., pgs 1-8
Siegel, Daniel J. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company.
Spolin, Viola (1963, 1999). Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques (Drama and Performance Studies). Northwestern University Press; 3rd Revised Updated Edition, 1999.
Keith is a Registered Drama Therapist with vast experience in correctional institutions across North America and Europe. He specializes in applying theater techniques to empower immigrant communities and survivors of torture. Keith is a seasoned stage actor, improvisation teacher, and co-author of a published paper on drama classes for individuals with aphasia.