Training Creativity: The Scientists Say Improvise

There are many skeptics out there who scoff at the idea of “training” creativity. More often than not, it’s in their self interest to propagate the fiction that creativity is the special domain of special people with special access to special powers – for which we must stuff their wallets with a lot of hard cash in order to access their mysterious brilliance.

Well, a Stanford Ph. D. by the name of Manish Saggar has other ideas. Saggar and his team at the D School at Stanford, conducted an experiment with two teams of individuals. A sample group was divided into two. The first group took a five week course in language capacity building. The second group took a five week course in improvisation and design thinking.

Then they all played Pictionary.

For any Second City alum from the last few decades, the idea of Pictionary being used as a bellwether for the source of creativity will elicit both ironic laughter and, perhaps, knowing nods. The classic Second City scene “Pictionary” was created by Steve Carell, Fran Adams, Ruthie Rudnick and Paul Dinello in the early 1990’s and it may be the most performed Second City sketch in the modern era. It has been scene on college campuses, cruise ships and concert venues all over the world.


So what happened in the study? Here’s the science:

“In sum, our results suggest that improvisation-based creative capacity enhancement is associated with reduced engagement of executive functioning regions and increased involvement of spontaneous implicit processing.”

What does that mean? It means that when we allow the part of our brain that is fast, instinctive and emotional to take the reigns – or, in Danny Kahneman’s world – the System 1 part of our brain: we are more agile, adept and able to be creative. It also means that in order to be creative, we have to slow down the System 2 part of our brain – the part of our brain that is deliberate and analytical.

That is the core practice of improvisation.

Writing in the Stanford Medicine Scope Blog about the study, Bruce Goldman notes the new study:

“…suggested that at least a particular variation on creative thinking – spontaneous improvisation – not only can be improved by training, but also appears to correspond to a particular state of brain activity characterized by – are you ready – the suppression of the very brain center seemingly built by evolution to keep us on task.”

When The Second City first started offering corporate workshops in the 1980’s under the names of The Second City Comedy Marketing Group and then Second City Communications, we had to jump through a lot more hoops and we had to create many more Venn Diagrams in an effort to “pre-prove” the effectiveness of improvisation to unlock innovative behaviors. Ultimately, the key was in the doing. Once any of our corporate partners had hired us and put their people through the training, the positive effects were immediately apparent.

It’s in the doing of improvisation that the proving was apparent.

But there still wasn’t a lot of data. For the corporate executive looking for the ROI to explain why his people needed to be trained in improvisation, the science was scant.

But these ideas are gaining traction. It was announced recently that Michael Lewis’ next book will focus on the work of Daniel Kahneman and his late partner Amos Tversky. Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work and Michael Lewis has been a pretty good indicator for latching onto individuals and ideas that are coming into vogue – whether it’s Flash Boys, The Big Short or Moneyball.

Those thinkers along with a host of other scientists across many fields, are extolling the power and the importance of improvisation as a training methodology and practice. We just might be onto something.

“Keep the action onstage. Don’t story tell or plan for the future. Try not to bring up the past. Try not to focus on people or animals that aren’t there. It’s very difficult to have a scene on what is not there in the now.”


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