New Research Highlights the Brain-Boosting Benefits of Improv
New neuroscience evidence points to improv as a potential trauma treatment.
Posted March 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- A 20-minute improv session may benefit the adolescent nervous system, research suggests.
- Improv improved brain connectivity and efficacy for adolescents with Complex Developmental Trauma.
- The "Yes And" rule may be responsible by creating a safe space to embrace uncertainty.
For decades, the only people to know about improv’s benefits were improv teachers and students. We all knew it made us feel less anxious, more in the moment, and more connected to others but only as an embodied, lived experience.
But then Charles Limb came along and changed the game. Limb conducted three fMRI brain scan studies starting in 2008 to see how improv affected people’s brain activity. And that was it. That was our neuroscience evidence that improv changed people’s brains. Until now.
A recent qEEG study, “Short-Form, Comedy Improv Affects the Functional Connectivity in the Brain of Adolescents with Complex Developmental Trauma as Measured by qEEG: A Single Group Pilot Study,” conducted by Mary DeMichele and Scott Kuenneke’s, has just been published in NeuroRegulation, and their work is situated with Limb’s, providing more evidence that improv isn’t just fun. It’s not just silly team building. It changes the brain in significant, measurable ways.
Previous Research on Improv
Before this qEEG study, which we’ll dig into shortly, Charles Limb’s fMRI brain scan studies were the only evidence we had of what was going on in people’s brains when they were improvising that was different than when they weren’t.
In 2008, Limb led a study that put jazz improvisers in fMRI machines while they played tiny keyboards. The improvisers played memorized and improvised scales and memorized and improvised songs. One of the findings of this early study was that a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) decreased in activity during improvisation. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex has been linked with self-criticism and error detection, kind of an inner critic, so discovering that the DLPFC decreases in activity during improvisation seemed important and relevant to our understanding of creativity.
During this same fMRI study, a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) increased in activity during improvisation. This region’s function is a bit harder to pin down. Different studies have linked it with creativity, pattern-formation, and long-term memory formation. In the case of Limb’s findings, it makes sense that creativity and pattern-detection and formation would be heightened during improvisation as compared to scripted performance.
Then, in 2012 Limb duplicated his brain scan research with freestyle rappers and found similar brain activity as with the improvising jazz musicians. Limb then repeated the fMRI study with improv comedians, but the results have yet to be published. Limb has described this most recent study as having similar results as the jazz musicians and freestyle rappers.
The New Study
DeMichele and Kuenneke’s study is an important new piece of the improv-brain puzzle. Thirty-two adolescents between the ages of 15-18 with Complex Developmental Trauma volunteered for the study (four were removed in the results due to irregularities in the qEEG readings). Participants wore qEEG caps so that brain wave measurements could be taken before and after participating in 20-minute comedy improv workshops.
Researchers collected brain wave data in a pre-assessment, at the end of 15-45 minutes of unstructured socialization, and then in a post-assessment after the improv session. Four participants wore the qEEG headsets at a time to try to limit self-consciousness during the study, which occurred over an eight-month period.
The 20-minute improv sessions followed DeMichele’s One Rule Improv approach, which is to focus primarily on improv’s "Yes And" rule. This means that participants were encouraged to agree with and add to each other’s contributions while improvising, instead of getting bogged down with other improv principles. The focus was on Yes And.
How Improv Affected the Brain
The study found that improv did, in fact, affect participants’ nervous systems. First, there was an increase in coherence from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment, meaning brain function became more integrated and effective. DeMichele and Kuenneke attribute this to improv’s Yes And rule, which creates a sense of safety by limiting uncertainty during social interactions. If your fellow improvisers agree and add onto whatever you say, arousal levels decrease and people’s windows of tolerance—what they can comfortably handle—increase. They write, “This reciprocal practice of acceptance and validation very quickly creates the security and safety needed to shift from the survival brain to the activation of the prefrontal cortex and a more integrated nervous system.”
The second finding was the decrease in what’s known as phase lag, which means the communication between brain areas slowed down during improvisation. An elevated phase lag isn’t actually a good thing; it means overthinking and inefficient processing of information. By creating a safe structure for uncertainty, improv’s emphasis on Yes And promotes focused attention which may decrease phase lag.
The third result was that participants experienced a significant boost to their sensorimotor systems, which means they were better able to process and react to sounds and movements, allowing them to better understand and engage in social interactions. This attunement could once again be due to improv’s Yes And principle, which is a kind of give and take that emphasizes focusing on others and reacting accordingly.
Just as in Limb’s fMRI studies, the DeMichele and Kuenneke scans showed an increase in improvisers’ medial prefrontal cortex activity. It’s not clear whether or not the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity decreased, but the kind of unself-conscious flow state associated with decreased DLPFC activity may only be available to experienced improvisers. The fact that novice improvisers with histories of trauma were still able to experience boosts to a brain region linked with pattern-formation and creativity is significant.
This new study is important. It’s the first neuroscience study to look at novice improvisers, the first to analyze adolescents’ nervous systems, and the first to look specifically at trauma. DeMichele and Kuenneke’s findings—that improv boosts coherence and connectivity for novice adolescents with Complex Developmental Trauma—are proof positive that more research needs to be done at the intersection of neuroscience and improvisation.
As DeMichele states, it all seems to point back to improv’s Yes And principle. She writes:
Improv’s rule of Yes, and is the access point to the brain as it creates the safety, attunement, and flexibility needed to achieve these neurobiological changes. Whether one’s trauma has created a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal, the conditions created by Yes, and drives the nervous system to self-organize towards integration and balance, thus shifting the individual from the mental state they are in to one better able to function cognitively, physically, behaviorally, and psychologically.
And that’s what it’s all about. That’s what we need to study and apply—improv allows people to shift from whatever state they’re in to a more optimal state where they feel coherent and connected. We’re fortunate to have innovative research like this proving that this type of work is worth studying. May it be a call to action for more research and for more integration of improv and improv principles in therapeutic settings.
DeMichele, M. & Kuenneke, S. (2021). Short form improv affects the functional connectivity in the brain of adolescents with complex developmental trauma as measured by qEEG: A single group pilot study. NeuroRegulation. 8(1).
Euston, D. R., Gruber, A. J., & McNaughton, B. L. (2012). The role of medial prefrontal cortex in memory and decision making. Neuron, 76(6), 1057-1070.
Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS one, 3(2), e1679.
López-González, M., & Limb, C. J. (2012, January). Musical creativity and the brain. In Cerebrum: the dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2012). Dana Foundation.