I wanna start, really, with Charles Limb. Charles Limb is a neuroscientist out of Johns Hopkins, and the reason why I start with Charles Limb is because Charles Limb has already done a study. He really wanted to look at this correlation between science and creativity. Can science teach us something about the creative process? As a neuroscientist, he's looking at the brain, and so he happens to also be a very accomplished musician. If you're into TED Talks, he's got a wonderful TED Talk on the combination of science and creativity, and the study that they did, and what he did is he brought jazz musicians into the laboratory, and he put them in an MRI machine, and he took a look at what's going on in their brain while they play, and he's finding a correlation between creativity and what's happening in the brain. So I won't give away too much of what's happening with it, but what he's doing is he's bringing in jazz musicians. Jazz musicians are known, are famous, are infamous improvisers.
It's part of the nature of what jazz is, the ability for musicians to not have to necessarily have prepared music, and still play something that is wonderful, and musically sound, and musicians, especially jazz musicians, are accomplished at doing this. If you look at just this image, most of us from a musical standpoint, or from a leadership standpoint, we have one conductor with which we focus, and everyone focuses on that one person to figure out what's going on, where are the changes, what beat structure should I be following in this moment, and this is a perfect example of jazz musicians. They're all looking at different people. They're looking at the people next to them. They're not even following one particular person. It's very difficult to figure out who is the leader is this particular group? The only connection you would have to leadership is who's in the center of the photo, but if you ask any musician, the piano player isn't normally the center of that musical group. There's usually something a little bit more foundational that's happening. If I had to guess who was leading this group, I would first say, there's probably no leader, but if I had to guess anyone, it's probably bass. It's probably someone setting down a foundation for everyone else to follow. But what they're doing is they're looking at each other, because they're improvising. In that moment, they're just looking, they're looking for one little thread of something with which they could follow, and create something wonderful together. From a creative standpoint, Charles Limb wanted to study this. What's going on in their minds during that time? And so he had a friend of his come in, who was an accomplished pianist, and he had created this plastic piano. So if you've ever been on an MRI machine, it's the big giant donut, right? And you have stay really still, and you can't have anything metal in there. So they created this plastic piano that isn't actually emitting any sound. It's all got midi connectors to it, so it's emitting sounds into a headphone, so he's got headphones, and Charles Limb has headphones on back in the booth, as well. And so, he's asking this musician to play prepared pieces of music, stuff that they already know how to play and he's playing these prepared pieces of music, and he's watching what happens to the brain, and then he's asking him to improv. Don't follow prepared pieces of music. How 'bout this? Charles Limb is going to be playing a piano in the booth, and he's gonna be playing what they're calling is trading fours, they're going back and forth. Let me play something, then you play something, then I'll play something, then you play something, and then there's comparing. What's happening in the brain during that time, the time where it's prepared pieces of music, and the time that it's improv? And what he was finding was there's an area in the brain, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. I won't get into the science behind it. It's the part of the brain that basically is triggering all the other aspects of the brain, including judgment. That part of the brain, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, basically comes down in activity, and in many instances, would come down to zero, meaning there are no other triggers within the context of the brain during the improv sessions. They're not judging what they're playing. They can't even remember what they're playing. They have to go back and listen to it again to figure out what it is they're playing, and go, "Ah, that was awesome. "I don't even remember doing that," the nature of improv. What's the last time that we entered into the creative process, and we walked out and went, "I have no idea what just happened right there." Like I just went for 45 minutes, and I have no idea what ideas we produced. And then you can go back later and go, "We said that? "That's fantastic! "I had no idea." And in the instance of what Charles Limb was showing us is that there is a primary connection between the way that we generate ideas, and the way that we judge ideas, that judgment becomes a primary obstacle to creativity, and we begin to see that, right? That judgment, we already know it in our own lives, we already feel it in our own lives, judgment is a primary obstacle to the way that we ideate. Both internal and external judgment, and depending on the environments that you're in, there's greater levels of each. There are internal judgments that are happening for us. From an ideation standpoint, when we share ideas that we generate, we are naturally afraid that other people are going to look at those ideas, and see them as dumb, like they're gonna judge the idea as we share it, especially if we haven't fully thought through the idea. The relationships that we have with each other are now impacting the way that we generate ideas. That's that internal judgment. That external judgment is the relationships we have with other people. If you've ever generated ideas with, for instance, your boss, it's weird generating ideas with your boss, isn't it? Because you want them to look at you as intelligent, smart, of value, and so you only want to share the most brilliant ideas that you have, but you have all these little germs of ideas that you wanna share as well, but you can't, because they might look at them as not being intelligent, as you not being of value, of your ability to generate ideas. In the end, you might look stupid. I'm afraid I'll sound stupid, I'm afraid I'll look stupid. I'm afraid I'll feel stupid. Smell stupid, taste stupid. I'll taste stupid. You're afraid that somebody's going to judge the way that you think. If you think about it, we can blame a lot of different people for the way that we look, the way that we act, our level of education, our position in life, we can blame any number of people, but what we can't do is blame somebody else for the way that we think, and because that is uniquely ours, we're afraid to share ideas that aren't fully formed, because we're afraid that people are gonna judge them, that other people are gonna look at us in a different way, and in some ways, as creatives, that creates a certain level of inhibition, that keeps us from ideating fully as a group, being able to generate ideas in a group of people. Most of us, as professional creatives, would rather generate ideas alone. Why is that? Why would we rather come up with ideas by ourself than we would in a group of people? Well, it's because there's nobody there to judge the idea. That we understand the half-baked nature of this concept or this thought, and we don't have to prove it to anybody else, or prove its value to anybody else. But we're missing out on the ability for someone else's perspective and experience to raise the level of our ideas to something new. Most of us, as we ideate, if we ideate alone, we're generating ideas that are based on our own unique perspective and experience. You can't generate ideas for something you haven't seen yet. It's incredible rare for us to pull away from the ability, to generate ideas for something that we don't even know exists. So you need other people to go, "You know what? "I don't know what this is going to be." "Well, what if we did something like this?" Someone else has to go, "You know what I saw? "What if we did this," and they could take that idea one step further, and now you've passed that obstacle, and you can keep going. But if you never share the idea, you never get to that stage, and what keeps us from sharing the ideas is the judgment of other people, and the judgment of ourselves. That's what Charles Limb found, that the inhibition, the ability for us to continually judge the ideas as we generate them, is keeping us from being our creative best. The good news is that there are tools in place that allow us to overcome this. See, for a lot of people, they really do believe that this is an introvert/extrovert thing, that introverts are more apt to want to ideate alone, and extroverts are more apt to want to ideate in groups, but that's simply not the case. In our industry, and from a creative standpoint, I mean, just pure percentages, half the people in the creative industry are introverts. They're people who enjoy making, but don't necessarily find energy from certain relationships with people. But those people have ideas with which to offer, if you'll give them an environment with which to do so. And there is, again, some tools out there that allow us to do so. And improv is one of them. Improv is a tool that allows us to recognize our inhibitions, and overcome those. Not in a performance way. See, we're gonna get into improv as a performance, versus improv as a teaching tool. And I think that people's inhibition towards improv is that they think of it as a performance, that I have to get up in front of a group of people and perform in that way, and that's simply not the case. The act of improvisation is something that can happen in very small, very safe, very unique little groups, and we're gonna show some of that today, with our in-studio audience. The goal is to show how we can use improv to get past the inhibitions that we have about judgment, and generate ideas in greater quantity and quality over the course of time. You could also use it as sparks, to be able to generate more ideas in the urgency or immediacy of a particular moment. If you're looking to generate more ideas in the next 10 minutes, you can use improv techniques that allow you to get over those certain hurdles, and we're gonna show some of that, as well. So, before we get into what improv is and how we can use it. Any questions?
Stef, we do have a question from the internet, from Nigel wanting to know, can you practice improv if you don't have another person to bounce off?
You know, I get that question a lot. The answer is yes, but you have to have some sort of influence that's unpredictable. The nature of improv means that you don't know what's coming, right? So that you have to be able to react to certain things. So if you have some instance with which you can generate a random anything, you can practice improv alone. So I'll just you an example. If you could somehow generate random images, so that you're reacting to images, you can create exercises that allow you to react to those images, or react to words that are randomly generated for you and in that reaction, you can practice improv, around a certain set of rules. So all you would need to have is a pre-described set of rules, and then something that's random with which to react to. Improv is an awful lot about relationship, it's about reaction to something else. So you need that reaction mechanism, and that reaction mechanism has to be random. Anything that can be generated random can then be used as the wild card to be able to react to from an improv standpoint. So yes, you can. It takes a little bit of preparation, but you can do improv alone.
Stefan Mumaw is the Director of Creative Strategy at Hint, a Kansas City creative content & experience design shop. Previously, he peddled his wares as Creative Director for Callahan Creek, The Brainyard and REIGN. He's led creative efforts on brands large and small, including Roland, Pioneer, Coca-Cola, Sony, Hurley, Tyson, Tennisset.com, Westar Energy, Elanco, Chevrolet, and Hallmark.
Stefan does a great job showing the principles of Improv and how to implement them. But I think the students should be much more positive then they are. Be much more playful and creative and less dark and critical.
Fascinating and succinct insights and exercises to inspire creativity within small teams. Thank you!