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In his book  Outliers , Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink ) maintains that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be wor...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

This Is Your Brain on Improv

I have never been able to come up with a reasonable answer for the oft-asked question, "How do you do that?" ("that" meaning, interchangeably, long-form improv, a specific improvised game, or even improv in general). How do I do improv? I don't know -- I just do it, I guess. I mean, I've taken hundreds of hours of classes, read dozens of books, practiced-practiced-practiced ... but in the end, it's just a matter of doing it. That answer, however, doesn't ever seem to satisfy either myself nor the asker.

I recently read an article in Scientific American about choking under pressure. You know -- you've practiced your convention speech a thousand times in front of the mirror and anyone who'll sit still to listen. You know it backwards and forwards ... but then you get up on the podium to deliver it and -- choke! You can't remember a thing. The old advice, when this happened, was to slow down; with relaxation and calm, your speech would return and you'd be back on your feet. But SciAm differs, suggesting that a better move would be to plunge right in without thinking and hope for the best. The super-boiled-down reasoning is this: your memorized speech is controlled by the cerebellum, land of the automatic; if you think about it, you're using your cerebral cortex, the brain's thinkiest bit. So of course your thinky brain can't retrieve the speech; it's in your monkey brain, safe and sound. It's like looking for your keys in the refrigerator -- better to check the key rack, where you left them. By jumping into the speech without thinking, your cerebellum is triggered, the speech is retrieved from its storage space, and you're the hit of the dental convention.

So how does improv figure into all of this? At the beginning, when you're taking classes, improv is mostly cerebral cortex, the higher-order-thinking part of the brain that gets involved when you're learning new skills. And that's good, because there's a lot to absorb as your mind becomes more flexible and you practice all the new stuff you're learning. As you're busy building new neural pathways and training your brain to think the way you want it to, all this improv knowledge is becoming more familiar. Until one day, thunk!, you're not reminding yourself to "say yes" anymore -- you're just doing it. The cerebellum, your animal brain of instinctual reactions, has kicked in. With practice, all the basic skills will make their way into that part of your brain, leaving the cerebral cortex free to work on higher-level improv stuff.

This is something that improvisors talk about amongst themselves (you know, when you're learning a new improv skill, and it's just impossible, and you know you're an idiot and you'll never get it, and then suddenly, you can do it, and it's easy, and you can't remember what all the fuss was about?), but it's hard to explain to someone in the midst of the struggle. Thinking about it in terms of cerebellum vs. cerebral cortex might just help banish the voices of despair and make it all make a little more sense.

So how do I do improv? I still don't really know. But I might be a little closer to a satisfying answer.

Improv Hours Today: 3
This Week: 9
This Month: 50
This Year: 118
Total: 5,618

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