In the world of brainy research, play is getting a pretty good rap right now. Scientists are actively studying the benefits of play on brain development. Let’s not forget about one of the best benefits of Improv – laughing! Laughter not only exercises our muscles and makes us breathe, it also decreases stress hormones and improves our immune systems! Here are some of the other amazing benefits of “brainy play!”
Putting the Brakes on Perfectionism
For those of us who suffer from perfectionism and it’s unpleasant manifestations (over-thinking, mental paralysis, undershooting, self-criticism) there is hope!
Charles Limb is a surgeon who studies creativity at John Hopkins University. Using fMRI technology, Limb looked at the brains of musicians while playing a memorized piece of music and compared it to their brain while improvising off the same music. Limb discovered that improvising activated the self-expression portion of the brain while simultaneously deactivating the self-censoring part of the brain.
Limb’s work stresses that as we allow the self-monitoring part of the brain to rest and the self-expressive part of the brain to come to the forefront, we open the door to the creative mind. So not only to we get a rest from the judge in our head, we invite the muse to play.
For Charles Limb’s TedTalk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkRJG510CKo
Play, Creativity and Creative Problem Solving
In addition to Limb’s work, researchers have been studying the benefits of imaginative play, which really is another form of improvisation, on a child’s ability to creatively solve problems. The following studies all focus on children.
Wyver and Spence (1999) examined two types of problems: I’ll call them simple and complex (really convergent and divergent problem solving) and the effects that play had on the ability to solve these types of problems. Among other things, this study revealed a significant relationship between pretend play and complex (divergent) problem solving.
Most problems in life require complex thinking so enhancing the ability to use creative problem-solving is as intuitive as it gets.
Improves Language Skills
Studies have demonstrated a connection between imaginative or pretend play and language skill acquisition.
One psychologist, Edward Fisher (1992) reviewed 46 studies on the cognitive benefits of brainy play. This mega-analysis (aka meta-analysis) revealed that children who participate in dramatic play improve their performance both from a cognitive-linguistic as well as a social affective perspective.
Sounds pretty technical but I think you get it. While language acquisition is clearly important to children, it’s usefulness is with us our whole lives. Being able to express and communicate effectively with others is at the center of most of our interactions and relationships.
Improves Self Regulation and Reasoning
As we continue to see the importance that emotional intelligence (EQ) has on future career and relationship success, it only makes sense that understanding how to activate and develop this in individuals is super critical.
Scientists studying the effects of imaginative play on self-regulation and the ability to reason discovered that the frequency of pretend play in children was correlated with their ability to self regulate. Self-regulation includes managing emotions, impulses and focusing attention – all important aspects to the development of emotional intelligence. I am convinced we would all be happier if we were better self-regulators.
More Improv Please!
Hopefully you are convinced that practicing and doing improvisation/imaginative play can have some pretty great side effects. If this article has peaked your interest, I will venture to make some suggestions. Keep in mind, I am not a scientist (ok- maybe at heart).
First off, life is an improvisation, so in some ways you are activating all these part of your brain everyday. But if you are wanting to increase your creativity, problem-solving, self-regulation, etc. while putting the brakes on your inner critic it makes sense to me that finding a way to improvise could be the ticket.
So if you’re a musician, you can spend more time improvising as opposed to playing memorized pieces.
Otherwise, taking an improv comedy class is a great way to access the imaginative side of your brain. You will play brainy games that get you out of your head and access your creative side. The more you do it, the more you will experience that sense of creative self-expression flowing from you. Plus, you will probably laugh more than you have in months – seriously – and we all know the benefits of laughter on the body, but that’s a whole other blog.
At Careerfulness we coach individuals toward work they love and organizations toward creating more cheerful work environments.
Written by Pam Farone. www.careerfulness.com
Buchsbaum D, Bridgers S, Skolnick Weisberg D, Gopnik A. 2012. The power of possibility: causal learning, counterfactual reasoning, and pretend play. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 367(1599):2202-12. – See more at: http://www.parentingscience.com/benefits-of-play.html#sthash.iFJsLPzZ.dpuf
Fisher, Edward P. (1992). The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play and Culture, 5(2), 159-181.
Limb CJ, Braun AR. Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: an FMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One. 2008; 3(2):e1679. PMID: 18301756; PMCID: PMC2244806.
Walker CM and Gopnik A. 2013. Pretense and possibility–a theoretical proposal about the effects of pretend play on development: comment on Lillard et al. (2013). Psychol Bull. 139(1):40-4.
Wyver, Shirley R., & Spence, Susan H. (1999). Play and divergent problem solving: Evidence supporting a reciprocal relationship. Early Education and Development, 10(4), 419-444. EJ 593 718.