A group of bubbly improv actors and a Harvard neuroscientist walk into a lab.
No, this isn't the beginning of a bad joke. Come August, members of the Evergreen Players improvisational comedy troupe will actually have their heads stuck into an MRI machine in a Harvard lab. Why? To find out whether their brains perform differently than those of non-creative types.
For most people, the idea of getting up on stage, being blinded by spotlights and asked to perform a scene that hasn't yet been written is nerve-racking. And yet there's nothing that improv actors love more.
How are improv actors able to do this so much better than the rest of us? Can they suppress activity in various parts of their brain that might otherwise hold them back from taking risks and forming fast ideas? Or are they just born with a different package of mental skills?
Harvard neuroscientist Roger E. Beaty intends to find out — and the test dummies are members of the improv branch of the award-winning Evergreen Players theater group, who are psyched to learn how their brains work.
"We think this is awesome," says Gail Montgomery, a co-founder of the Evergreen Players who is spearheading the fundraising campaign to get the actors in the lab. "We want to see if improv artists’ brains are automatically wired more creatively."
The study will pit two groups against each other in a series of scientific tests: twelve actors from the Evergreen Players versus twelve "Joe Shmoe" corporate types. Before and after a series of creativity tests, they'll go through an MRI to determine how improv affects parts of the brain that influence risk-taking and idea formation in both the short and long term.
The uncommon alliance of improv and neuroscience got its start when Montgomery saw a study of jazz musicians' brains and thought, "That would be interesting to do with us." Not long after, she made an appeal to the audience after an Evergreen Players production, where a "friend of a friend" put her in contact with researchers at the University of North Carolina. Several calls later, Montgomery put the pitch to Roger Beaty, a post-doc at Harvard — and her search ended at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Montgomery's hunch is that improvisational artists are able to develop ideas more quickly and take greater risks because of years of practice, not because of any physiological superiority. Formed nearly a decade ago, her improv group has acquired a mountain of experience while adding a new style of theater to the Evergreen Players, which has performed in the town for over sixty years.
Montgomery and her husband have a personal stake in the research: As entrepreneurs, the two hope that the Harvard name will lend some scientific credibility to their ExperienceYes business, which brings improv exercises to corporate offices in Denver in the name of boosting creativity. For that credibility, they're willing to foot the bill for both the travel and the research — which may cost tens of thousandsof dollars — though they also hope to raise some funding through donations.
Improv skills like embracing failure and risk, working as a team to facilitate the creative process, coming up with ideas and seeing them through, and navigating change are "directly transferable" to business, explains Montgomery, but "a lot of the businesses we work with tend to think that art can’t be leveraged to have a measurable result."
Corporate workers breaking out of the mold in an ExperienceYes seminar.
Teri Miller Photography
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She gets paid to prove them wrong with ExperienceYes sessions, in which she has corporate accountants and other left-brain type participate in games originally designed for children. After being shown market research on the business benefits of creative thinking, the employees are given an initial creativity test. They then do a series of games or exercises before doing another test, and see for themselves the progress that they have made.
ExperienceYes seminars are often greeted with a degree of subdued hostility, Montgomery admits. But some of the games — like the "human lawn mower" — are so outrageous that everyone is having a blast by the end, all while using creative parts of the brain.
The exercises used in the Harvard study will mirror many of those at ExperienceYes sessions. And when Beaty is through with his research, we should have the answer to what happens when improv actors and a neuroscientist walk into a lab....