How Improv Changes Your Mind: Its Not What You Think, Its How

6 min readFeb 19, 2018

The success of our interactions with others might be measured in outcomes — conflicts resolved, information received in the spirit with which it was shared, decisions made. But life is always in flux, new situations arise continuously, and outcomes can be fleeting or in a future we can not yet see. So a more useful, but far less concrete, measure of success can be found in the process of an interaction. For example — were we listening to the other people involved and if not, what got in the way? Are we aware of what we feel in response to the dynamic of the interaction? Are we triggered by anything and if so, how does feeling emotionally heightened impact the way we think and behave? To ask these and similar questions is a way to look at the process of an interaction and in so doing, strengthen the Emotional Intelligence of a partnership or team.

We are trained to focus on outcomes — grades, promotions, getting things right, “wins” of all kinds — but in pursuing them we have to engage in an ongoing process of human interaction. The core value of Emotional Intelligence training is to refine and improve the competencies and skills that research shows have measurable, positive impact on the outcomes we seek in our life and work. The competencies can be learned and improved over the entire course of our lives, and improvisation is a model that can work with — and potentially transform — habits of mind, defenses and even beliefs that can interfere with our ability to be aware, agile, and adaptable collaborators.

A creative experience like improvisation is packed with the powerful social-emotional learning potential because of the collective tension of people engaged with one another in a high-stakes interaction. Whatever is happening in the moment is happening to all of us. Our personal, deeply embedded defenses are affronted. When we cannot predict nor plan for an outcome, self-protective mechanisms — a heightened sense of threat, a rapid withdrawal from the scene while we scan the environment, a rush of adrenaline and cortisol narrowing our field of perception — can be triggered, sometimes just below the level of consciousness. The inner critic turns on us and sometimes turns into judgments on others or on the experience itself. But we soon come to see that these self-protective thought/feeling patterns are hardly unique. We discover that others get jammed up just like we do. And as we give voice to the struggle and frame these defenses as ancient survival skills adapted to an earlier time, our cognitive mind has already begun to re-design them.

“These automatic habits are set in place as a normal part of living, as experience shapes the brain,” explains Daniel Goleman and his research team. at The Emotional Intelligence Consortium. “As people acquire their habitual repertoire of thought, feeling, and action, the neural connections that support these are strengthened, becoming dominant pathways for nerve impulses. Connections that are unused become weakened, while those that people use over and over grow increasingly strong. When these habits have been so heavily learned, the underlying neural circuitry becomes the brain’s default option at any moment — what a person does automatically and spontaneously, often with little awareness of choosing to do so.”

If we learned to avoid acknowledging mistakes, for example, or to never let on that we do not understand what someone is trying to communicate because our social environment discouraged this kind of honesty, improv is an opportunity to learn a very different approach. By engaging with other people who are also taking risks, we can learn to allow for that weird and awkward phase of change between what is and what is emerging to play out.

Improv is, in fact, the one place in life that celebrates process over outcome every step of the way, because it is a process that can only happen when people take creative risks and support one another while doing so, regardless of the outcome. In their article “The Best-Kept Secret To Creating Social Change: Improv” Marc Evan Jackson (The Detroit Creativity Project) and Alex Gorosh write that “what improv teaches you is that it is okay (in fact, awesome) to fail boldly — to make big, sweeping and courageous decisions on the fly. And that if you do fail (which you TOTALLY will, a lot) you can always just get up, dust yourself off, get another suggestion from the audience, and try again. You are no longer responsible for having the perfect answer right away, but instead are empowered to know that armed with nothing more than your fellow participants, energy in the direction of the common good, and an open heart, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished.”

Improv removes the need to be right all the time. Improv frees one to say, “I don’t know.” And improv takes the focus off you as an individual, and places it on the group, and the common good.” Marc Evan Jackson & Alex Gorosh

The creative process of improvisation can galvanize growth of thinking and relationship skills, but even more importantly, it can replace the need to be right and in control with the desire to participate in an unfolding dynamic, and this is what equips us to cope successfully with change. The key is to stay in the process long enough to realize its possibilities. The uncertainty of a creative experience can produce a profound sense of threat. The discomfort of this can range from uncomfortable to unbearable, but research shows that through such experiences 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 website dedicated to research and knowledge about the science behind lifelong learning. “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.”

In order to reprogram neural circuits that connect emotions and thought processes, people need to actually engage in the desired pattern of thought, feeling, and action, ideally in a repeated experiences that reinforce new responses and allow time to play with emerging skills. “More active, concrete, experiential methods, such as role-plays, group discussions and simulations usually work better than lecturing or assigned reading for social and emotional learning,” according to Goleman. “The most effective training combines experiential methods and the development of insight. Emotional capacities like empathy or flexibility differ from cognitive abilities because they draw on different brain areas. Purely cognitive abilities are based in the neocortex. But with social and emotional competencies, additional brain areas are involved, mainly the circuitry that runs from the emotional centers — particularly the amygdala — deep in the center of the brain up to the prefrontal lobes, the brain’s executive center. Effective learning for emotional competence has to re-tune these circuits. ”

Interpersonal Neurobiology researcher and educator Dr. Dan Siegel describes the power of social experience to shape the brain and strengthen these competencies 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 the mind. It is more than the sum of its parts.” A remarkable expansion of research shows that new experiences and therapeutic relationships can even repair developmental injury and, that “throughout life individuals encounter psychotherapists, educators, significant others, and new experiences that contributes to the brain using the mind to reshape itself into healthier more integrative states.”

Improv rewards us for shifting out of the defensive, routine habits of mind and the willingness to experiment. Like all experiments, many attempts will flail and flounder, but the process is what matters. With practice we can get out of our planning, predicting habits of mind and be more free to the creative opportunities in the moment. The creative power is not what we think, its how. And that changes everything.




LCSW, CGP, CPAI, writer/performer, storyteller, storytelling coach. Improviser on team AURA at Magnet Theater in NYC. Storytelling coach for individuals & orgs