Applied improvisation supports executive functioning! In this post, we will explore what executive functioning is, the science behind applied improv’s beneficial impact on it, and exactly how applied improv supports a positive influence over our executive brain functions.
So let’s dive in: What exactly is executive functioning? Good question. Simply put, though there are many different ways to look it, executive functioning is our brain’s ability to carry out skills that allow us to regulate our mood, emotions, thoughts, and actions to best get things done .The three primary executive functioning skills are as follows: working memory (the ability to remember information and use it when necessary), flexible thinking (the ability to think about things in more than one way), and inhibitory control (the ability to stay focused by resisting distraction and temptation) .
Now, why are these important? If you didn’t already guess, several of these skills are the base of most of our daily activities, from simply remembering a peer’s name to drowning out your neighbor’s loud music to finish your homework to resisting road rage so you can drive safely. These are our “get things done” functions, and they are crucial for success in all facets of life now more than ever in our unpredictable and distracting world. It is so easy to get lost in our technology (be it our phones, computers, or TVs), frustrated by the daily news, and stunted by events or sudden emotions that arise during our days. And what’s more is that as the number of distractions grow, we are expected to not only do more but do it faster to keep up with our rapidly changing world. So we have a choice: Get things done or let whatever distractions arise slow us down.
If you chose that you want to get things done: Congratulations, you’re in the right place. Now, how does improv come into play (no pun intended)? I know what you might be thinking: “Improv is just about games, theatre, humor, and wit.” Not necessarily. When applying improv to your life (whether you’re a student, working professional, or just any person), the skills you gain transcend the stage of gameplay and take their parts in the stage of your life. It was Shakespeare who said, “All the world’s a stage.” And for that stage of your world, you’ll go far with a brain well versed in its executive functioning abilities. And with all things, practice makes perfect. But how exactly does applied improv allow this practice and enhancement of your executive functioning skills?
Let’s dive into the science of what improv does to our brains. Improv is based in spontaneity. Players participate in unscripted, unplanned gameplay or scenes where there is no time to think but to simply just do and roll with the punches. The Arts In Psychotherapy journal discusses there is a direct correlation between spontaneity and executive functioning in that when you train your ability to be spontaneous, you are enhancing your executive brain functions . How exactly? Through the practice of quick thinking through low-risk improv gameplay and abiding by improv’s rule of acceptance by always saying “Yes, and” to positively forward the action, participants train their brains to be more open and better able to deal with uncertainty. Thus, improv directly counters our normal defense mechanisms  by training us to respond differently by being more accepting, open-minded in our thinking, and ready for challenges, helping us to get things done despite distractions that may try to sway us.
Some of these distractions we experience in our lives are, in fact, our own feelings and emotions that can, at times, be difficult to manage. Improv is all about being comfortable with the uncomfortable. Therefore, in the process of training our minds to be more open and ready for uncertainty, we are practicing another key executive function: self-control (as part of inhibitory control). In improv gameplay, various emotions arise during moments that may be uncomfortable for some due to reasons that could range from general shyness to not knowing what to say to your scene partner who just suggested, “Let’s go eat ice cream on Mars with Mickey Mouse.” However, due to the group dynamic, there exists a group objective which forces you to think outwardly about others and not just yourself. Emotions cannot so easily get in the way in these instances when something bigger than yourself is at stake. Therefore, in gameplay, participants not only observe what causes these feelings of uncomfortability, but learn how to effectively change their mindset to move forward despite them. This practice then transfers over into managing these emotions in what might be uncomfortable in their real lives.
Now you might be wondering, how does practicing these skills in gameplay actually transfer over into your life? The answer lies in the science of how the brain works, specifically in the relationship between emotion and thought, which is wonderfully explained here by molecular biologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules: “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’”  The emotional spontaneous aspect of improv is the very thing that instills these skills into our brains for use outside of gameplay, helping us to practice yet another foundational executive function: working memory (you guessed it).
The research behind applied improvisation’s beneficial impact on executive brain functions is vast. This is only a taste of the information that exists out there. Want to learn more? Please contact Christiana at ChristianaFrank.com or our partners at Team Building On Purpose and KidScape Productions. We are more than happy to provide you with all the information you need through our onsite trainings, private sessions, online courses, virtual seminars, and workshops.
We look forward to connecting, communicating, and creating with you.