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Simon Pond is naturally funny, the way some people are naturally thin, or Kanye and Kim are naturally going to implode.

Like many great improvisers, Simon is also frighteningly smart. When he’s not doing archaeological digs or sampling fine wines, you can find him performing with Pondward Bound, Second City’s The Bench, as well as CCA-nominated sketch troupe Jape. You may also recognize him from How To Spot An Improviser

Photo © Nicole White

Today I want to share with you some things about the brain and improv that I have been thinking a lot about lately. You may find it boring and useless, which is probably why we don’t hang out together.

I am not really an expert in brain science, but I have had the joy of spending time with a lot of very smart people who study everything from the neuroscience of rat olfaction, to the link between art and the early human brain. That said, all of the mistakes and oversights in this post are purely my own. Unless I am confronted, then I will blame them.

When I am not improvising, I am a graduate student at Trent University working towards an M.A. in Archaeology. My thesis project involves studying the link between early human stone tools and early human cognitive abilities. It is going okay, thank you for asking.

The interesting thing about the evolution of the human brain is that over the last six million years we evolved these massive calorically-expensive brains that we carry around in our heads. The most interesting and enigmatic question of human evolution is probably, “Why such big brains?” It turns out that these big brains support a variety of behaviours that are uniquely developed in humans. The most notable of these behaviours is language, but the list also includes such things as complex tool use, advanced planning ability, artistic representation, music, and maybe even a sense of humour.

The literature on the biological and evolutionary basis for humour is pretty mixed. A good amount of it focuses on the differences between men and women, which in my opinion is probably unproductive at best. However, there is some good, thoughtful work out there. My readings have led me to a few conclusions:

• One, humour is a real thing and is a pan-human phenomenon.

• Two, humour is an adaptive, or the direct by-product of an adaptive behaviour (meaning it exists for a reason).

• And three, the base of all humour is the combination of two somewhat incongruous ideas. Don’t think about the last point too much, it will make you less funny.

But being funny in improv isn’t really the same as sitting around a paleolithic campfire and cracking wise. In fact, anybody who has ever performed comedy knows that the formalized setting of a comedic performance makes it very different from just making jokes with friends. Unfortunately, nobody has really taken the time to figure out what happens in the brain during improv from a psychological perspective (at least not anybody I have been able to find). So instead we must turn to studies of the “other” improv, musical improvisation.

In my experience, there seems to be a startlingly high number of neuroscientists who like to dabble in jazz music. Or perhaps, there are just a startling low number of people in my social group who perform jazz music. Either way, one of these neuroscientists was nice enough to decide to combine his two passions and study what areas of the brain are used during the performance of improvised music (Limb and Braun 2008).

Limb and Braun took a number of highly skilled jazz musicians and put them inside an MRI machine, which is able to determine in real time, which areas of the brain are active during a particular behaviour. He gave the musicians a little plastic keyboard (as a metal one would be incredibly dangerous in an MRI machine) and had them play both a standard learned song, as well as some improvised music.

When he compared the two samples, he found that there were some real differences in which parts of the brain were used during improvisation. Most interestingly, he found that there was a decreased use in areas that are concerned with goal orientation and self-monitoring. The author suggests that this sort of release of inhibition may be necessary in general for creative output.

Perhaps the old UCB adage of “Don’t think” is not completely accurate, as you really do have to use your brain to integrate a series of complex ideas while improvising. Instead, highly-skilled improv happens when we “don’t plan” and “don’t judge.” If you are an improviser you probably know that already, but now you have science to back you up! I take comfort in that. If you do too, we should probably hang out.

Reference:
Limb CJ, Braun AR (2008) Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: an fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679.
(There is also a TED Talk on the subject. Click here to view it.)

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