What Improv Teaches Us About Creativity
My latest at my Big Think Blog. I explore improv and the idea of agreement.
The most important rule in improvisation comedy is the idea of agreement, the notion that a scene flourishes when all the players accept anything that happens to them. Improv isn’t about wisecracks and one-liners. It’s about creating a structure where characters and narratives are quickly created, developed, sometimes forgotten and other times resolved. With just a tip-bit – usually a one-word suggestion at the beginning of the show – good improvisers generate compelling and captivating stories that engage the audience. Comedy is the natural byproduct.
The question, of course, is how do they do it?
Consider a study conducted several years ago out of Johns Hopkins University by neuroscientist Charles Limb. Limb designed a clever experiment that measured the brains’ of jazz pianists using an fMRI machine as they improvised on a MIDI keyboard. His study focused on two parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The medial prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain associated with self-expression; it’s a mental narrator that keeps tabs on the story of your life. The DLPFC is closely associated with impulse control. It’s a part of the brain that makes you think twice before you eat a slice of pizza or gamble – a sort of mental shackle that keeps your neurons in check.
The key finding involved the DLPFC. Limb found that the musicians “deactivated” their DLPFC once they began improvising. That is, the musicians turned off part of their conscious brain to let the unconscious mind do the work. As Limb says, “musical creativity vis-à-vis improvisation may be a result of… the suspension of self-monitoring and related processes that typically regulate conscious control of goal-directed, predictable, or planned actions.” In other words, the pianists were inhibiting their inhibitions. (Watch Limb’s TED lecture here)
Continue reading here.