To Get Out of Your Own Head, Think Like an Improv Actor
How to use the rules of improvisational comedy to be more open and creative
Earlier this month, at a CNN town hall focused on LGBTQ rights, Elizabeth Warren was asked how she would respond to someone who says their faith teaches them that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Without missing a beat, the senator deadpanned, “Well, I’m gonna assume it’s a guy who said that, and I’m gonna say, ‘Then just marry one woman.’” As cheers erupted, Warren tacked on a zinger: “Assuming you can find one.” The audience roared. Comedians approved. It was an improvisational gem.
Warren is far from the first to apply the principles of improvisational comedy to another discipline. In design, business, mediation, law, medical teaching, and yes, politics, the art of improvisation — comedic or otherwise — can help people let go of expectations, adapt to changes, solve problems, and consider ideas they wouldn’t have ordinarily thought of.
But how, exactly? It’s a misconception that improv is simply making things up on the spot. Instead, there are processes built on sets of explicit rules. Here’s what scientists have discovered about what happens in your brain when you improvise.
Your inner critic quiets down
In a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers recruited six musicians to play music while the researchers scanned their brain activity. They found that that when the musicians were improvising, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-monitoring — the little voice in your head that says, “Are you sure you want to put this out there?” — became less active. The same thing was observed in the brain of a recording artist who was freestyle rapping.
If you’ve felt stuck in your head, or want to be less critical of yourself, improvisation can help you to get out of your own way. In a sense, you’re getting back to the uncritical, freewheeling headspace of your childhood. As one of the PLOS study authors, Charles Limb, explained to Brain World, “At first [children] don’t have the capacity for self-monitoring and self-awareness, but then when they get self-conscious, they lose their…