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Improvisation Training Makes The Science Of Human Connection So. Much. Fun.

   There is an improv warm-up game called "Mind Meld" in which people pair up, are given a suggestion, count to three out loud and then say the first word, at the same time, that
Credit: Image : Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization
comes to mind. After a beat, they do it again: "One. Two. Three. Word." After another beat, they do this again. It usually takes only a few beats for both players to say the same word at the same time. 
Some people find this a remarkably easy and intuitive thing to do. Others find it weird and struggle to stay with it long enough to get results. Some find themselves doing a rapid assessment of their partner's face and predicting what he/she might say. When I use this exercise in training workshops with therapists and educators, there is often a great need to know "how to get to the mind meld moment" and reflexive self-criticism about having "done it wrong." The exercise can raise anxiety, resulting in a brain freeze for one or both players. But there are no "right" outcomes for this exercise, just things to learn about the brilliance of the human brain, in particular its continual drive to discover patterns and make associations as well as the primary impact of social connection.
    When 2 partners achieve the "mind meld moment" it is an expression of how eagerly our brains attend to, absorb and attune to the behavior of others, especially when we are in close contact. This natural "synching-up" generally occurs just below conscious awareness and improvisation training heightens attention to it, in the same way that weight training focuses on development of specific muscles. Variations of this exercise: Do it while standing back to back. Do it standing so close that toes are touching and make deep eye contact. Try it standing 6 feet apart. Each experience will be a bit different and bring up discussion points about what happens internally. When the usual methods of creating interpersonal safety are replaced with a game that both players are willing to commit to, feelings come into focus.

The Science: "Neurons that fire together wire together." Dr. Dan Siegel
     According to research in the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology our brain and mind are shaped by human interactions. How those interactions feel is key to what and how we will learn about relationships. The ones that feel positive fire up the "reward" system and the emotional brain retains the memory of what generated that good feeling. All of our encounters with other people - across the lifespan - produce neural pathways that express in how we feel, what we think and our sense of self. Through this lens, the phenomenon of getting to the same word in the "Mind Meld" exercise is an expression of the speed at which neurons that are firing together "wire" together.
       Researchers with the Max Planck Society discuss studies that explain this through the way the brain receives, calculates and remembers sensory input, rapidly forming patterns and neural pathway. "Although no two people have the same brain," they write, "they can still share the same thought." To watch improvisers take a random suggestion from the audience and, in what seems like theater magic, develop scenes, characters, emotion, and a narrative arc without any planning whatsoever is to watch what can happen when the science of interpersonal connection is applied to the creative process. And the creative process is what we are working with in real life relationship-making and problem-solving.

Improvisation training strengthens the ability to "tune in" to others which enhances the ability to understand them. People unwittingly imitate each other, "or else show the appropriate complementary action and reaction," according to researchers in the article "How Our Brains Build Social Worlds" in New Scientist. "When this happens, the parts of the brain that unconsciously respond to the actions of others create a form of resonance. We are not usually aware of this, but when it occurs we feel “on the same wavelength” as the person with whom we are interacting.’ This phenomenon of similarity, and mutual understanding within the realm of resemblance, is the foundation of communication.

In the article "Why We Are Wired To Connect" Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman observes that this attunement to others is in play in most social interactions. This and many other improv activities heighten what are naturally-occurring neural processes - but ones that often become defended and no longer feel natural as a result of painful interpersonal experiences and conventional education emphasizing intellect and marginalizing social-emotional development. The improvisation training experience hijacks the brain's drive to connect and reinforces the "fun" factor of human interaction. The creative, mental/social/emotional exercises captivate the cognitive brain and thereby work around the habits of self-judgment and other fear-based reactions. "We have a profound proclivity towards trying to understand the thoughts and feelings bouncing around inside the skulls of people we interact with, characters on television, and even animated shapes moving around a computer screen,"  writes Dr. Lieberman. "Although we are far from perfect at gleaning the actual mental states of others, the fact that we can do this at all gives us an unparalleled ability to cooperate and collaborate with others – using their goals to help drive our own behavior." Watch improvisers storm the stage with the enthusiasm and passion that is the trademark energy of this art form and co-create characters, scenes and stories to observe first-hand the truth this science reveals. 

 The Principles of Improvisation Apply The Science of Human Connection

Receiving/Accepting - The unrehearsed, spontaneous collaboration is only possible because of the brain's drive to connect, which is rewarded when others are open and receptive. Improvisation training strengthens skills for sustaining emotional connection in times of uncertainty, which reduces the anxiety-driven default habits of judgment, analysis or trying to predict what will happen next.

Yes...and - This improvisation touchstone - to unequivocally accept what others offer when interacting and then adding to it - is also the touchstone of effective communication and the foundation of relationships that work. The reactive "no" to others' ideas or to what is unfolding is a fear-based defensive posture that is a roadblock to emotional connection. We do not have to like what is offered to be creative with it. 

Agreements - improvisation can only happen when everyone involved agrees to play within a structure or set of rules. If the structure/rules are honored, a collaborative creative process develops that everyone involved participates in but no one is fully in control.

Make your partner look good - Improvisation requires a high degree of emotional and creative risk, which is why the supportive connection to other players is key to its success. Trust grows when everyone involved is willing to put ego and agendas aside and focus on making his/her partners look good, and with that greater - and more interesting- emotional and creative risks are taken. 

Improvisation is a kind of life laboratory where we put the science of human connection into action. Through the skills developed in order to improvise, people become more attuned to others, are highly responsive, are able to get on the same page and negotiate with one another in real time. Because there is no rehearsal, no director, no script, the mandate is to listen with maximum openness, respond with maximum commitment, and explore a co-created reality. Research shows that these creative, positive social-emotional experiences are highly rewarding to our very social-emotional brain, which makes them extremely useful in therapeutic and education environments, but also in any world in which people have to work together with other people to get things done. Thanks, Science!

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer, President of Lifestage, Inc a company that designs and facilitates creative professional development and wellness workshops and classes. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS a show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds. Follow her on Twitter @JuTrWolff


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