Popping the Hood: Your Brain on Improv


I spend a lot of time wondering why some people are great at improv and some suck.  I also wonder why I might be on fire one night and ice cold the next.

Is it the pre-show warm-up?  My attitude?  What I ate for dinner?  My personal life?  Eye contact?  What is that magic potion I can mix up so I can nail every show?

To find the answer, let’s throw some rappers in an MRI machine.

According to this article, “Freestyle rappers essentially shut down the parts of their brains that might disrupt their creative flow.”

Get that?

Your brain disrupts your creative flow.

Here’s the deal.   Freestyle rappers (or improvisers) ramp up activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.  It’s the part of the brain responsible for organizing and integrating information.  Makes sense, right?  Good improvisers are able to juggle the details of a scene pretty handily.

The part that screws you up on stage?  That’s the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  It’s in charge of self-control, self-monitoring and self-censoring.

Translation:  If you focus on yourself, you’re screwing yourself up.

Nerd quote: “If an athlete starts paying attention to what they’re doing, how they’re going to move their body to catch a ball, they’ll clutch and they won’t do it.” – Dr. Allen Braun

Remember when you first learned how to play “catch”?  You sucked at it.  That’s because you were telling your body what to do.  Now, if someone whips a ball at you, you’ll catch it without thinking.  (Remember the moment at 13:36 in “Awakenings”?  Your body seemingly reacts without thinking.  You are thinking, just not consciously.)

Why is it so hard to recreate or reconstruct what led up to a killer improv moment?  Because you weren’t thinking of how to make that happen.  It’s almost a dream state.  Your brain races, even though you’re not in control of it.  Words or reactions come out without a filter.  And it seems perfect.

I’ve hit a rough patch in my improvisation lately.  This research confirms a something I’ve been worried about.  I’m a ridiculously high self-monitor.  For me to start improvising well again, I need to shut down that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  I need to stop self-control, self-monitoring and self-censoring.  By doing so, my mind will automatically shift to allow the creativity to flow.

So there you have it.  I’ve solved improv.

Previously about your brain: Why you choke.

Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com


One response to “Popping the Hood: Your Brain on Improv

  1. Cool post. I’ve been working on using improv to generate sketch ideas lately, including teaching a class on it, and training one’s brain to be able to remember a lot about an improv scene or set is pretty tough. It’s like learning to hide a camera and then forget about it, until you need to go back and retrieve the film, because if you’re aware of the camera, it’s just as you say, you think too much and it ruins the work.

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