Possibility and Hope: The Therapeutic Promise of Applied Improvisation
Just as improvisation training is increasingly recognized as beneficial for people in business — as Forbes, Harvard Business Review and MBA programs all over the country affirm— it can help people perform in life. In today’s world of intense and often dramatic change, the challenge is not only keeping up with what happens around us but galvanizing our ability to maximize the opportunities that rapid change can present. What sets improvisation apart from any other art form, and makes it inherently therapeutic, is the way it trains us to respond to the unknown in real time, to make something from nothing, which is what real life can be like when we are faced with loss, illness, financial struggle, or social transformation that remakes the world as we knew it. The whole impossible-sounding enterprise develops a psychological mindset that is the soil in which hope can grow.
Hope is grounded in our sense that we can change. Applied improvisation can provide the tools for shaping our inner life and taking steps to shape our circumstances. When we learn to improvise, we learn to immediately respond to a suggestion and create something out of the raw materials available through our own and others’ knowledge, emotional competence, imagination. How an exercise will turn out is not something we can know or predict. An improvised conversation may never find its footing or it may be one of those magical experiences of co-creation that has a transformational impact on everyone involved. We can only find out how it will go by trying. The psychological “muscle” for tolerating the discomforts of change develops through this willingness to experiment, which can be directly applied to exploring new perspectives on problems or new roles in response to existing situations.
The radical positivity at the heart of improvisation is also at the center of its therapeutic power. Changing our habits of mind — particularly the self-protective defenses that shut down our courage to take creative or emotional risks — is a slow and sometimes fraught process in therapy that relies on dialogue alone. There is nothing wrong with the gradual, painstaking, conventional approach, however we can “yes….and” it with a creative approach that has neuroscience to back it up. In her article To Harness Brain Plasticity, Start With Enthusiasm researcher Helena Popvic outlines how activating positive emotions powers our brain’s natural capacity to reshape itself in response to direct experience. “The human brain is continually altering its structure, cell number, circuitry and chemistry as a direct result of everything we do, experience, think and believe,” she writes. “This is called “neuroplasticity”. Neuroplasticity comes from two words: neuron or nerve cell and plastic, meaning malleable or able to be molded. The implications of neuroplasticity are enormous: we have the ability to keep our brains sharp, effective and capable of learning new skills well into our 90s, if we protect our brains from damaging habits and give them ongoing stimulation and appropriate fuel. One way to illustrate this is to think of the brain and mind as a large boat, complete with captain and crew, sailing the ocean blue.”
Using her boat metaphor, the “captain” is our conscious mind that makes choices from an array of possibilities and must do so constantly and sometimes under great pressure, the “crew” consists of the subconscious patterns and habits developed over the course of life that streamline our physical functioning as well as automatic behaviors and defenses, and the ocean is the waters of life that we must navigate. Applied Improvisation retrains the “crew” to respond flexibly, adaptively and creatively, and provides the “captain” with a revised set of directions for navigating through rough waters and sailing into the unknown. “In order to maintain our capacity for learning new skills, we need to engage in learning new skills on a regular basis,” writes Dr. Popovic. “In order to become creative, inventive and re-sourceful, we need to give ourselves tasks that require creativity, inventiveness and resourcefulness. In order to have a good memory, we need to make a conscious effort to pay attention. In order to remain socially adept, we need to remain socially active.”
Improv games and exercises — designed to overcome the “crew’s” natural defensiveness we feel when the unplanned and unfamiliar meet performance anxiety — are a rapid connection with their own creative energy as well as to the other people involved. So if, for example, our conscious mind agrees to an improv game in which we have an entire conversation in the form of questions, and everyone in the game plays within that structure, we are all on the same page tackling the same problem. The subconscious “crew” may rebel from time-to-time and say things like “this can’t be done” or “this is ridiculous” because it has no experience with this kind of interaction and wants to return to the familiar. That’s okay, as long as the conscious mind stays the course and commands the “crew” to keep going. The social-emotional atmosphere generated by a properly-designed improv exercise is enthusiastically supportive and positive, which is highly-persuasive to the “crew.” Trying to create this conversation made only of questions is a made-up problem, but the problem-solving brain does not know that it is made up. The same creative capacities are tapped by attempts to solve a made-up problem as when we tackle a real-life one, and strengthened in a low-risk, fun-infused creative process. And if we agree to tell a shared monologue that we make up on the spot and we must repeat the last line our partner said before we add anything, we tend to listen more closely, and in so doing practice one of the most essential relationship skills. In this way, the applied improvisation warm-up is in itself an exercise in possibility and hope. We say “yes” to doing a thing that has limits, that channels creative energy in a specific way, that inherently connects to hope. Because hope lies not in knowing how things are going to turn out, but in the strength that we can create our way through the difficulties we face.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW CGP, MT, CPAI is a consultant, trainer and writer/performer. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories — with a twist — told by people from all walks of life.