Improv-ing Mental Health

I love improvised comedy. It feels amazing, being up on stage, letting your creativity flow and bringing laughter to those you’re with. It’s constantly surprising, with scenes often taking unexpected and hilarious twists, and in my humble opinion is the funniest form of comedy out there. And I’m not the only one who loves improv.

The Upright Citizens Brigade, a great improv group (you may recognize some famous faces in the early stages of their comedic careers) |YouTube

Being spontaneously silly without judgement can definitely help decrease inhibitions and increase confidence. There are copious anecdotal stories of how improv has helped people combat anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Recently, scientists have even been testing improv out as a form of occupational therapy. It’s been investigated as a palliative care treatment for Parkinson’s disease, with patients seemingly experiencing a significant improvement in daily motor activities (although this was only one small study so we shouldn’t get too excited yet), and there are ongoing trials into its benefits, especially in the elderly. But what is actually going on inside our brains when we improvise?

Freestyle Love Supreme |YouTube

Well, very few studies have been done into the neuroscience of theatrical improvisation, but a fair few have looked at musical improvisation. This ranges from jazz musicians jamming together, to freestyle rappers. And freestyle rap is one of my favourite types of improv – if you haven’t seen them before, check out Freestyle Love Supreme, a bunch of really talented musical improvisers (sometimes including Moana and Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda! Although the others are equally awesome too!)

Researchers from the National Institute for Deafness and other Communication Disorders in the US decided to investigate what actually goes on neurologically when a rapper freestyles, using fMRI to image the brain. Comparing the brain images of rappers performing rehearsed lyrics with scans of the performers freestyling, there was found to be huge differences in the frontal lobes. Improvisation activated the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), and decreased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The DLPFC is the area of the brain controlling planning and filter systems. This lowered activity can be associated with the lowered inhibitions that improvisation requires.

The MPFC has been linked to self-expression. However, prefrontal atrophy (degeneration) of these areas is known to occur over time (and in age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s), resulting in decreased activity of the MPFC. This is perhaps the reason why scientists are now looking to improv to treat some of the symptoms of aging and age-related diseases.

These brain changes when freestyling correlate well to those seen in other forms of musical and non-musical improv, suggesting that all different types of improvisation may require the use of similar parts of the brain (which makes sense, as it’s the same kind of spontaneity and creativity that is needed).

Neurology is an ongoing field of research, with improvements in imaging techniques giving increased information all the time. These imaging techniques are currently very expensive, there are a lot of variables and different people have different shape and size brains. This can make the comprehensive study of processes like improvisation very tricky. But whatever the underlying neurology, the vast numbers of people who have felt the improvements in mental health are testament to how great improv is. Now please go forth, watch, perform and laugh!

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Want to know more about improv and the brain? Listen to this great podcast by digital science! Link

Want to get involved in improv yourself? There are loads of groups around if you have a quick google. If you’re in the UK, check out local classes and performances on the UK Improv Network facebook group, and more specifically if you’re in around Durham, check out my old club Shellshock!

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