New neurobiological research reveals an easy and fun approach
By Mary DeMichele
As parents and caregivers, we want to have healthy, positive and enjoyable relationships with our children, whatever their age. Our recent experience with the COVID-19 pandemic has created an interesting paradox affecting family relationships as a whole.
Family separation due to the policies of residential facilities intended to limit infections creates an emotional distance with the people we care about. On the flip side, the closing of schools and workplaces forced families to be in the same space all the time, resulting in emotional tension that also causes emotional separation.
These two realities, combined with the daily challenge of connecting with children who suffer the effects of developmental trauma, creates a daunting challenge. New ground-breaking research, however, is revealing the neurobiological power of an easy, quick and fun solution to reconnect with those we care about with joy: improv.
Wait… Improv and Brain Research?
Yes, improv — those 1-3-minute-long games you may have seen on stage or on the television show “Whose Line Is It Anyway” can serve as a powerful solution that can be accessed anywhere, by anyone. Neurobiological research involving adopted teens reveals that practicing improv for only a few minutes can improve brain function, helping one shift into a mental state where they can experience joy, connection and even shared laughter with others.
Improv and Developmental Trauma
Complex developmental trauma impacts mental and physical health, and the benefits of practicing short-form improv parallel the treatment needs of this population. While many think improv is an exercise in being silly or funny, it is actually neither. Improv is a unique comedic art form. It is not stand-up comedy and it is not drama.
Improv games are structured by a very powerful frame referred to as, “Yes, and…”. In every interaction, whether it is verbal, physical or emotional, each player must “Yes, and…”. This means they must unconditionally accept the offer from another and add to it. In other words, “Yes, I unconditionally accept your offer, and I value it so much I will add my own to it.” So, in every moment, each player is listening, attuning, accepting and validating the other. An example of Yes, and in action from the game Yes, and- Design might sound like this:
• Player A: Let’s design a new and improved pencil.
• Player B: Yes, and it could come in any color.
• Player C: Yes, and it could change color when you touch it.
• Player B: Yes, and it could have a never ending eraser.
This unique frame of “Yes, and…” makes improv a relational activity where players are supporting and caring for each other. Laughter is never at the expense of another, but from the shared and supportive experience created by improv.
“Yes, And…” Is the Access Point to the Brain
In our neurobiological research, Scott Kuenneke, Director of Neurofeedback at Calo Programs, and I recorded the nervous systems of 32 teens with developmental trauma between the ages of 15-18 using quantitative electroencephalography (qEEG) to record brain wave activity. Pre- and post-recordings were taken to measure changes in brain wave frequencies before and after students played improv games for 20 minutes. To confirm neurological changes, the following were evaluated: coherence, a measurement of the amount of information passing between areas of the brain; phase lag, a measurement of the speed of the information; absolute amplitude, a measurement of how activated or deactivated the brain regions are; and low-resolution electromagnetic tomography (LORETA), a measurement that provides a deeper look at and understanding of the nervous system.
We found that improv increased the functional connectivity of the brain, which means that different areas of the brain were better integrated and communicating more efficiently with each other. Improv activates the prefrontal cortex, moving one from a mental state of fear and protection to where they are better able to engage cognitively, behaviorally, physically and emotionally. In other words, improv put the brain “online,” allowing a person to better engage in learning, relationships, therapy and life.
While improv is often misunderstood as chaotic and scary, the frame, “Yes, and…” actually limits uncertainty in social interaction. It creates safety, not fear. This reciprocal practice of acceptance and validation created by “Yes, and…” rapidly creates the security and safety needed to shift from the fear-based brain to the activation of the prefrontal cortex and a more integrated nervous system.
Another finding in this research was a decrease in what is called “phase lag.” This means that communication between brain regions actually slowed down, helping the brain better communicate within itself. When communication is too fast, it is like the different regions of the brain are all talking over each other. This can lock a person up, as they struggle to understand what is being asked of them or happening around them. If communication is too slow, then that can lead to being rigid and unable to adapt in a situation.
Again, we see that improv’s frame of “Yes, and…” assists in this transformation. While “yes” is a positive affirmation that creates safety, the “and” instigates just enough uncertainty for people to be present and pay attention. Because they do not know what the next offer will be, they are focused on the other’s actions, language, tone, expression, breath and body language. With more efficient communication between brain regions, more effective self and social engagement is possible.
The focus produced by the uncertainty of improv, along with the practice of consistent and reciprocal attunement, may explain why we also saw an activation of the sensory motor system. This shift in the sensorimotor region allows one to experience more easily understanding and make meaning out of verbal and nonverbal communication.
Why this Research and Improv Matters
So often, people try to engage someone who is suffering the effects of trauma by attempting to talk with them first. They are trying to show them they are there for them, love them and understand them, but if the person’s brain is essentially “offline,” all that effort and love will seem like a threat, and the person will protect themselves by disappearing or trying to make you disappear.
One student, when asked how improv made her feel, said, “It feels like swimming. You don’t have to go through the ugly.” She explained, “Going through therapy is like track: you sweat, hurt, sometimes cry … the ugly. But with improv, it’s like swimming. You do the same work and get to the other side, but you don’t even feel the sweat. Instead, you are laughing and smiling. You don’t have to go through the ugly.”
This research shows that improv “drives the nervous system to self-organize towards integration and balance.” It helps an individual shift from being “offline” and having to struggle through the “ugly,” to being “better able to engage cognitively, physically, behaviorally and psychologically.” Improv serves as a fast, easy and fun way to help yourself and others find meaningful and joyful connections with others.
For more information about how to bring the benefits of improv into your life and share it with others, visit OneRuleImprov.com.
Mary DeMichele is a coach, consultant, speaker and author whose work in education, clinical and professional settings has helped thousands of people take those first critical steps in the world of improv. She created a unique research-based, trauma-informed and accessible approach to teaching and learning improv, so people could experience the joy and benefits it can bring to their lives. DeMichele is featured in the documentary, “Act Social-Using YES AND to Save the World from Within,” starring Collin Mochrie of the television show “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” Psychology Today and Forbes. DeMichele earned bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and a master’s degree from Syracuse University. She holds a two-year Certificate of Completion in the dramatic arts for Action Theater Conservatory. She is a certified academic and special needs teacher in numerous states.
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