Spring Forward with Improv
So it’s officially springtime. If you’re like me, your 2023 resolutions are now as dusty as the jacket covers you placed on the shelf to read, and you’re beginning to feel like changing yourself will have to wait till the next time you need to buy a new calendar.
But what if it wasn’t? The days are getting warmer, we changed our clocks, the Vernal Equinox equinox-ed on March 20th: spring couldn’t be a better time to break out of your old seed pod and sprout some new, hip, hypocotyls with improv!
As the world changes, so can we. However, we often find ourselves locked into really negative patterns, or stuck in ways of thinking or behaving. These patterns can be powerful, and self-confirming. Clay Drinko, author of Play Your Way Sane, spoke about these patterns in a conversation with Margot Escott (LCSW). These patterns, which they identify as thinking styles, are some of the ways that we prevent ourselves from changing, or get locked in a way of being or looking at the world. Here’s a quick summary of those styles, and you can read the whole article here:
These patterns affect our brain. If our inner critic is labeling us, or placing unreasonable expectations upon us, we are likely to suffer from paralyzing anxiety, and defeat ourselves before we’ve even begun.
So what are we to do? If we think that way…then that’s our thinking style, right? We’re stuck forever!
Nope– that’s a magnification (catastrophizing) thinking pattern right there!
Improvisation offers the tools to quiet our inner critic and change the way we think about the world. In Drinko’s article in Psychology Today How Improvisation Changes the Brain, he discusses a study by neuroscientist and musician Charles Limb and neurologist Allen Braun. In that study, jazz musicians were put into functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines (fMRIs). The musician’s brains were monitored to see which regions were sent more blood during different activities. More blood meant more activity in that region. Limb and Braun had the musicians play scales (a sequence of notes in a memorized pattern) and then riff generally on a theme, creating music (improvising). Drinko writes that they discovered (emphasis mine):
During improvisation, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreased in activity and the medial prefrontal cortex increased. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is like your inner critic; it’s that voice in your head that says, “Don’t say that” or “What will happen if you’re wrong?”
On the other hand, the medial prefrontal cortex is associated with language and creativity. While musicians improvised, their brains’ censors decreased and their creativity centers increased in activity.
In other words, while improvising, the parts of the musician’s brains dedicated to inner critique quieted and their creative energies were more active! Their brains changed while improvising. Further tests with theatrical improvisers showed similar results.
Theatrical Improvisation does this through the magical tools of “Yes, and.” With our “yes” we recognize and confirm the reality of the people around us, and with our “and” we offer more to build on that reality. And while doing so we remain positive and excited about what’s coming: that’s how we make more interesting things happen on stage. Give this a try and before you know it you’ll be laughing and creating with your friends and family.
We at the Unscripted Project bring this attitude to our classes. By the the end of our program in a classroom we find the class’s attitude is much more positive, much more open to asking questions and making mistakes, and generally more uplifting.
Check out an improv class near you or online and try out the power of improv to retrain your brain. After all, what is daylight savings time but a big improv game anyway:
Uncle Sam: Hey, so what if we just moved the time an hour earlier now?
All of Us: Yes, and we’ll do it for another hundred years!
Look at that. We’re all already great improvisers.
Paul is an improviser, theatre artist, and podcaster. Paul’s been improvising since high school, but it was while teaching theatre (playwrighting, acting, play-production) in Shanghai that he was reminded of how even the best education can neglect to help students become spontaneous, confident, and joyous. Improv was, and is, an excellent solution to that problem. Other teachers took note, and Paul began collaborating with English teachers to use the tools of improv and theatre education to enliven their classrooms. Paul currently produces Lapropo, a podcast of creative storytelling using table top roleplaying games.