Improv performers and improvisational musicians know that there is a magical state called “focus and flow.” This state happens when a troupe or single performer is in a state of off-script creation, utterly in the moment and without inhibition. It is in this state that even scientists have reported unconscious breakthroughs and ideas. That is when the brain is most creative and able to innovate—during a state of improvisation.
Our modern world makes reaching this state of unconscious creation more and more difficult. The culprit? Multitasking.
The neuroscience of improvisation
Over the past decade, many studies have pointed to the detrimental cognitive effects of multitasking. Even the youngest generation, those born into the digital, multitasking world, are suffering. A study from the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry suggested that multitasking temporarily reduces IQ. Luckily, the loss is short term, and our ability to think and work returns to normal when we focus. So if we’re turning our brains to low-level multitasking, how do we regain our ability to create inventions, great novels, and cures for diseases?
Improvisation is nature’s answer. It lets the brain run free. Improvisation actually shuts down regions of the brain that would interfere with the free-flowing process of creation. Distractions are eliminated; self-consciousness is unplugged. It simply requires us to enter a state of focus.
In 2009, Aaron Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari studied the brain activity of musicians and non-musicians. Their study, published in the journal NeuroImage, showed that highly trained musicians, when improvising, entered a different mental state. Their brains shut down the right temporo-parietal junction, which allows your attention to be distracted by peripheral stimulus like a shiny object or movement, sound or color.
“In other words,” writes Amanda Rose Martinez in “The Improvisational Brain,” in Seed Magazine, “in the improviser’s brain, the area that imposes self-restraint powers down, allowing the region that drives self-expression, which ramps up, to proceed virtually unchecked.”