In the process of interviewing improvisation experts for my new book, Ditch the Pitch, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Anne Libera, Director of Comedy Studies at Second City and author of The Second City Almanac of Improvisation. My goal in my research is to learn what helps musicians and actors improvise successfully, and then translate these concepts to selling.

At the beginning of our conversation I asked Anne to describe some of the characteristics that make certain people good at improvisation. Without hesitation she said that good improvisers “turn down their analytic brains.” She continued,

“It’s not that we completely turn off our analytic brain, but we turn down the part of our brain that says, ‘No, that’s not good enough.’ When people turn down their analytic brains, they’re able to take their focus off of themselves, for the most part, getting out of their own head in the situation that’s around them.”

I’m sure we can all relate to what Anne is saying. It’s very easy to over-analyze what we are doing, letting self-judgment get in the way of our creativity. Anne recognizes that we can’t totally turn off our analytic brains, but if we can keep them down to a “low hum” we will be able to limit self-judgment and self-criticism and free ourselves up to improvise brilliant ideas.

Anne’s ideas have been formed by her years in the theater, and there are some recent scientific findings that support what she is saying.

Charles Limb is a professor of Otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and is also on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Dr. Limb is fascinated by music, sound and the way the brain interprets what we hear, and he has combined all of his interests in his research. In a recent TEDx Mid-Atlantic talk called “Your Brain On Improv,” Limb shared results of research where he put jazz musicians in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner and monitored their brains while they were improvising.

Limb outfitted an electronic keyboard to work in the fMRI scanner. He asked jazz players to play two kinds of musical pieces while in the fMRI machine — a written-out piece that they would learn ahead of time and an improvisation over the same musical chords that were in the written-out piece. His goal was to compare the brain activity when playing a pre-learned piece with the activity that occurs when improvising.

What Limb found was that, during improvisation, the medial pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with self-expression, had expanded activity, and the lateral pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with self-monitoring, had decreased activity. Limb’s finding’s confirmed what Anne Libera had witnessed in her countless hours teaching improvisation and directing shows at Second City in Chicago: improvisation requires us to turn down our analytic self-judgment, and just let ourselves go. The best improvisers are able to do this, and if you spend too much energy analyzing and judging yourself, you will not be able to generate creative ideas spontaneously.

So, next time you are in the process of persuading a customer, turn down your analytic brain, ratchet down your self-monitoring, and create a spontaneous, fresh sales conversation. I’m convinced that if Anne Libera was watching you from her director’s chair, and if Charles Limb was observing your brain waves through his fMRI machine, they would both be proud of you.

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