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IMPROV RULES: Social-Emotional Development From The Classroom To The Consulting Room Using AI

"I think improv helps people become better humans. It makes people listen better. Improv rules are life rules. And so, if a lot more people are taking improv, a lot more people are being thoughtful in their daily life about how they interact with each other....We could say that saying 'yes' is the foundational thing, but really its listening and hearing what the other person is saying. Then building off of that rather than waiting for someone to stop talking so you can say your thing. That's the hardest thing to learn as an improviser-its to listen. And I think that's one of the hardest things to do as a person." 

Improvisation can be a seemingly magical experience from the perspective of both improviser and observer. People with little or no actual knowledge about one another, in an empty space, create a world, a relationship, a story with neither script nor director nor defined outcome. It can appear that improvisers are either mind-readers, telepathic, or planned the whole thing, when in reality they are creating together in real time, on the spot.
Workshop offered by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
at 2017 AIN World Conference, UC-Irvine
 This art form gives life to Carl Jung's famous quote "the meeting of 2 personalities is like the contact of 2 chemical substances. If there is any reaction, both are transformed."When improvisers engage with one another, they are continually transformed by one anothers' actions, offers, and emotional responses. They do 
this by working with a set of guidelines for how to behave and think, and these "rules" turn out to be ideal guidelines for successful human interaction in every area of life. The skills that produce improv magic begin to develop from the very first, most basic exposure to the games and exercises through which we learn these "rules." They can only be learned through direct social-emotional experience, and because every experience we have changes our brain, the kinds of skills cultivated through improv training translate into strengthening substantive and essential relationship and thinking competencies. 
    To understand the importance of creative experiences that promote and exploit the brain and mind's organic response to social-emotional triggers, it helps to understand the problem these experiences address. Dr. Dan Siegel, a researcher, writer and trainer, describes the power of social experience to shape the brain in his book The Developing Mind. He writes that "human connections shape neural connections, and each contributes to mind. Relationships and neural linkages together shape themind. It is more than the sum of its parts; this is the essence of emergence." What gives creativity its rich rewards is that tension between what is and what is emerging. The discomfort of this can range from uncomfortable to unbearable, but research shows that we can grow our capacity to withstand this tension and direct it toward learning and discovery. “Research on brain plasticity has shown how connectivity between neurons can change with experience,” according to, a resource for educators and change agents. “With practice, neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation that speeds transmission of impulses. These neuroscientific discoveries have shown us that we can increase our neural growth by the actions we take.”
Applied Improvisation is a direct social experience driven by positive emotions and a structure designed to trigger the brain chemistry of reward from the very start of the learning process. AI games and exercises hijack the naturally-occurring response to uncertainty and to new social situations, and use it to produce the tension that makes games and stories interesting fun. When we cannot predict nor plan for an outcome self-protective defenses – a heightened sense of threat, a nearly-automatic withdrawal from others while we scan the environment, the brain chemistry of stress – can be triggered, sometimes just below the level of consciousness. That same heightened awareness of the environment and the social atmosphere, which has a direct influence on our perceptions and ability to process information on a cognitive level, is a simple shift in mind set away from curiosity. Curiosity is expansive, and grounded in acceptance of the fact that we do not know how things are going to turn out.

 The social-emotional connections formed through simple, carefully-designed Applied Improvisation games and exercises provide alternate pathways through uncertainty and the brain will take those pathways under the right conditions. These conditions are:
  • A social environment of safety and support
  • Emotional heightening of experience which drives attention to the new information
  • Experiences that trigger the brain’s reward chemistry – experiences of a “win” combined with social interaction are ideal
  • Novelty and creativity, which are associated with the brain chemistry of reward
Observe how it feels in the body and emotions to belong in a social environment and know that you belong;
Observe how it feels in the body and emotions to feel lost and unsure in a social environment;
Observe how it feels in the body and emotions to adopt a curious mind set;
Observe what the social world feels like when leading with curiosity;
Experience the mind set of an improviser – curious, open, interested – that takes up and replaces the same psychological space as fear, anxiety and self-consciousness;

Walk about the space 3 different ways:
11) You know what’s going on, you know how to deal with what is going on and you know that you know. FREEZE and observe what is going on with your body, your emotions, and your sense of the space/others.
22) You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know how anyone knows what is going on or what to do; FREEZE and observe what is going on with your body, your emotions, and your sense of the space/others.
33) You don’t know what’s going on and you know that you don’t know but you are insanely curious about and interested in this environment; FREEZE and observe what is going on with your body, your emotions, and your sense of the space/others.

   Discuss self-observations with the group. What do group members have in common in terms of their internal experience? What is it like to shift into curiosity simply by choosing it? 

Research: Curiosity is defined as a positive emotional-motivational system associated with the recognition, pursuit, and self-regulation of novel and challenging opportunities. It "prompts proactive, intentional behaviors in response to stimuli and activity with the following properties: novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict.” Creativity and Exploration: Facilitating PositiveSubjective Experiences and Personal Growth Opportunities Journal of Personality Assessment 2004

Read more about the connection between curiosity and social-emotional learning on

Get out of overthinking and jump into a physical experience that connects the players in a shared goal;
Experience the “high” of a “win” that can be experienced when the goal is achieved;
Observe what happens internally over the course of a few or more attempts to achieve the goial;
Identify internal shifts as each turn progresses, which are attempts to achieve the goal as the game proceeds;

The group identifies 3 iconic figures from a world familiar to everyone in the group, all of whom inspire everyone in a similar way, e.g. 3 great thinkers: Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers; 3 iconic women: Michelle Obama, Madame Curie, Harriet Tubman;  A strong identifiable pose is created to represent each of these individuals. The group breaks into teams of 3. In the style of "rock, paper, scissors" the leader of another group member counts out loud "1, 2, 3 pose!" and on "pose" each player assumes one of the postures. The goal is to get one of each icon represented at the same moment. 
This game is a non-verbal way to connect players in a common goal. The "problem" is a simple one but there is really no strategy or cognitive process that will help realize the goal. It requires simply trying. The willingness to keep trying until the goal is achieved. And it taps into a different pathway of connection between people, an intuitive, unspoken connection that develops when we play together. This "sense" of being connected to others is cultivated by playing games and an almost magical awareness of what the group is moving toward is what makes improvisation possible. It is also the mental and social process that drives creative problem-solving.

RESEARCH: The REWARD Circuitry of the brain provides an uptick in well-being that
makes it more likely to want to repeat the experience that gave rise to it. The brain is especially responsive to rewarding experiences that required effort and for which there was no definite outcome. Uncertainty, as in a game, heightens attention and when the effort to attend and respond leads to a "win" the brain will get a spike in dopamine, the "feel-good" chemical. Rewarding experiences in groups can provide repair experiences for social injury. They can compensate for the painful experience and rewire the brain to have an updated memory – a social/emotional upgrade “We feel rewarded when we create new objects or actions. And since creativity is based on decisions made by the creator, the reward system kicks in when we are in control and inventing things we have thought of ourselves.” James Zull, “Arts, Neuroscience and Learning”
Radical positive energy is required to overcome the stress response that can easily be triggered by situations of uncertainty and where there is a risk of failure or social rejection. Applied Improvisation is the ideal delivery system for demonstrating the supportive emotional energy that can override and redirect fear of rejection and shame-inducing failure that is a natural part of taking creative risks in a social situation.
Demonstrate radical acceptance
Experience radical acceptance
"Break set" mentally-commit to a physical activity without cognitive labeling
Enter into mind set of "yes" to whatever is offered that is necessary for improvisation
Experience the emotional satisfaction of giving unconditional support to others

Round 1: Participants stand in a circle. A category is suggested from the group. Player 1 has to name 3 things in this category, e.g. "fruit." After the first one the group yells "1!" very enthusiastically, after the 2nd one they yell "2!" and after the third "3!" Then big applause. A new category is chosen for the next player and the group does the same. A new category is named for each player. 
Round 2: A category is suggested by the group for the first player. Player 1 then "acts out" something within that category and the next player in the circle names it. Absolutely anything the person acting out does is great, and whatever label it is given is accepted. The group calls out "1, 2, 3!" as in the first round. The idea is to let go of old ideas about "getting it right" or worrying about content. Its about radical acceptance and unconditional support.
Round 3: A suggestion of "something that doesn't exist" from the group and the facilitator guides the group to make the category a little more complex, e.g. "movies starring Robert de Niro"  "books by Stephen King" or "talk shows." A player "acts out" a title and the next player makes up the thing that doesn't exist as if that's what is being acted out. After each one the group calls out "1, 2 3!" with great enthusiasm.
Debrief: Radical acceptance from a group combined with a creative challenge in which any response is correct is an entirely different way to interact with other people than what we usually encounter. Doing an activity like this is a way to examine what it feels like to connect with others in this way and what is it like to play with ideas and receive unconditional support. The emphasis on fun and positivity creates a new rule for engaging with others and reduces the tendency to overthink when doing creative activities.

Impact of social rejection research study: Research subjects were engaged in a ball-tossing experiment and told that what was being studied was reflex time. At some point during the experiment, all the secret research guys stopped tossing the ball to the research subject. Afterwards, the subjects talked mostly about how they felt about being left out of the game. MRI tests of their brain activity show that social rejection and vulnerability is processed in the same part of the brain that processes physical pain. “Broken hearts and broken bones: a neural perspective on the similarities between social and physical pain.” Current Directions InPsychological Science

Researchers published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that "powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion. These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.""Pain, Social Rejection Have Similar Effect On The Brain" on Web MD

RESEARCH: "To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money. We've been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise. There seems to be scientific validity behind the message 'praise to encourage improvement'. Complimenting someone could become an easy and effective strategy to use in the classroom and during rehabilitation."  "Social Reward Enhance Offline Improvements In Motor Skill" PLOS One

"Praise taps into the same reinforcement system that enables cheese to help rats through a maze." Matt Lieberman, Phd, researcher, in Social:Why Our Brain Are Wired To Connect

TEDx talk: "The Social Brain And Its SuperPowers," Matt Lieberman, Phd

More resources:

This workshop was offered at the 2017 Applied Improvisation World Conference at University of Irvine-California. There are many posts on this blog with games and exercises that are applicable to to social-emotional learning with people of all ages, from the developmental years through late adulthood.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is President of Lifestage, Inc, a consultant/trainer, writer and performer. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds. Follow her on


  1. Thank you so much Jude, for you generosity. This is very important "stuff," and I will begin using it right away.

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  3. Really is too bad transitions group can't make an xtraactive that is also polarized. causes group polarization


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