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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.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting. As an improv teacher I have developed and borrowed numerous activities that help my students turn off their conscious brains. I have labeled this part of the brain “The Critic.” The critic is that voice in your head that tells you not to do something because others will think you are stupid, or crazy, or perverted. The critic is very useful in our day-to-day lives. Most of us can thank our critics for the fact that we haven’t been fired from a job. But in improv, the critic is deadly. (S)He stops you from going forward in the scenes.

    Interesting side note: drunk improv is horrible. For improv to work you must be connected to the people on stage with you. Drunkenness creates an emotional myopia that takes this pretty much impossible.

    May 8, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      “The Critic” love it!

      And yes, drunk improv is horrible. I hope readers wouldn’t draw that conclusion (:

      May 9, 2012
      • Some folks have asked us a few questions about our shows on the 12th and 20th so here are some anwsers:Q: You guys are finally doing shows?A: Yes, the witness protection program cleared it.Q: Are you just doing these two?A: These are the first two scheduled shows. Q: You have more after that?A: We are working on dates for shows in October, but a lot of that will depend on turn out for the first two. We will have two for certain, and maybe a week night show.Q: You guys know that Screams is starting, and has rehearsals soon?A: DOAH! Well, yeah. Um that’s why we have the show on the 12th yeah, that’s it. Come see that one.Q: Are they water balloon shows?A: No, they are not. They will be similar to faire shows, but have some different elements. Kind of returning to our traditional stage roots.Q: Like what? I can’t hit beavis?A: Like some structures that just don’t’ work well outdoors and we are also slowly working long form and scene structures into our shows. Q: Long form?A: Yes, we are mixing some scene type stuff, and eventually plan on full long form shows in addition to our mixed format shows. Some will be funny, some serious, hopefully all entertaining.Q: Who will be in these shows?A: Our first shows will be with a subset of some of our other players, and we will slowly expand the ranks as we get things established.Q: How much are the tickets again?A: For the shows on the 12th and 26th, they are $10 each, pre-sale, and $12 at the door. However, we are offering a 2 for 1 special on our website.Q: Why are you doing two for ones?A: These days lots of folks have really tight budgets, and we wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to come and see our shows.Q: Can I hit beavis if I pay full price?A: Of course! But not with a water balloon, we are in an actual theatre this time. See me after the show and I will rent you a brick.Q: Will you have concessions at the show?A: We will be selling non-alcoholic drinks, and beavis has beer of his to share, if you give him a few bucks.Q: You forms of payment you guys take?A: On our website, we take paypal and credit cards (via paypal). At the show it will be strictly cash only (we have to pay our mafia connections you know). For private shows we have been known to take um nevermind.Q: What if I can’t make the show, or think you guys are not worth $5?A: Oh snap! We will put excerpts from it online later, and maybe into a future podcast.Q: You guys have a podcast?A: Yes, we have faces made for radio, check them out. Q: Where can I get more info/buy tickets/listen to you podcast/make fun of beavis?A: On our website, here read the menu.Q: Where else can I follow you guys?A: We have an rss feed on our site, we are on facebook, myspace and twitter (motleyplayers3).Q: Wow, I did not realize you guys are so organized.A: we are not, its an act. Actually this is like a ton of work, and we are still working on it.~ Dave, Brian Rob.

        December 22, 2012
  2. Thanks for sharing! I’m a Creativity teacher in highschool and you’ve just gave me great information to share with my students… I didn’t know about DLPFC and now I want to look for more about it.. thanks!!

    May 9, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      I’m glad Carolina! I would check out Charles Limb’s TED talk for more

      May 9, 2012
  3. Glad you guys are getting notcied but I hope exposure on this level doesn’t undermine your efforts. If too many people know about what you’re doing, it will spoil the surprise factor.

    December 20, 2012

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