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Improvisation & Cognitive Flexibility: Changing The Way We Think Changes Everything

    USA Today featured a lovely piece titled "The Health Benefits of Practicing Improv" in
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
November, which quoted people who attributed the following to participation in improv classes:

  • Reduction in social anxiety;
  • Reduction in anxiety in general;
  • Addition of some new friends and social contacts;
  • Greater degree of mindfulness and awareness of the present moment;
  • Improved ability to let go of the need to control external events;
  • Having a clear path to working through perfectionism and the fear of making mistakes;
  • Greater confidence at work
  • Improved ability to think creatively about problems;
   Its a great article that speaks to the immediate gains many people experience through the experience of improvisation, but anecdotes such as these do not a research finding make. There is, however real science that links the benefits of improvisation and similar - similar meaning fun, engaging and creative - experiences to serious psychological, social and emotional gains. Which makes applied improvisation a viable and important choice for integration into learning and therapeutic environments. 

 A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that active engagement with the unexpected was directly associated with an increase in cognitive flexibility defined as "the readiness with which the person's concept system changes selectively in response to appropriate environmental stimuli"   which enhances the ability to take in new information. Everything in improvisation, from the warm=up games and exercises to creation of characters and scenes, turns on the development of skills in working with content that shifts and changes without warning. Cognitive flexibility has implications in both the classroom, where there is continuous pressure to absorb and apply new information that builds on existing knowledge, and in the consulting room where change that may challenge pre-existing beliefs and habits of mind is being discussed and examined. Both require some degree of cognitive reorganization, a pulling apart of the existing set of ideas in order to integrate something new.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CPG is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. For a schedule of upcoming workshops go to She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a storytelling slam with a twist.


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