Stories on the Brain
[Guest post written by core volunteer, Bryce Schmidt. Bryce is a junior at Malone University studying Creative Writing & Psychology. He is a key staff member during the Canton Dreamoratory, where he taught the improv Artsploration.]
One of the many pleasures I’ve had working for TomTod is teaching improvisation at the Canton Dreamoratory summer camps. Stemming from a background in theatre and performance, I love to challenge myself and others in perhaps the most simplistic iteration of theatre: telling stories. That’s what most of life is anyway, isn’t it? We tell and hear stories everywhere we go. Maybe you thought I was simply referring to books or campfire tales—yes, certainly, but stories are everywhere. Conversations, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, business meetings, resumes, artwork, lunch at the deli. Yes, even your lunch—food—is a story. There was a journey that ethylene-ripened tomato took to get from the Florida farm it was harvested from to the produce supplier’s inventory to your Bacon Turkey Bravo last Tuesday. And the sandwich crafter has a story to tell too; the irritated, not-so-subtle nuances of the way he slopped on that chipotle mayo may divulge some plot details.
Stories are all around us. We are all storytellers, whether we know we are or not. Stories take infinitely different forms. Improv is one of my favorites and I love teaching it. Through improv, people can take a small starting point, a smidgen of information such as a description of a scene or character, and craft a humongous story full of people, places, and things, often telling it humorously. Some of us tell stories better than others. We all know someone who is a master storyteller, don’t we? If you don’t—find one, or several. They will enrich your life.
For those of us who aren’t so skilled in telling stories—and this goes for any type of communication; writing, speaking, acting, presenting, problem solving, entertaining, conversing—there are some things I’ve learned that can help.
Creativity is a sought-after quality that many of us wish we had more of. It just so happens to be a valued principle of TomTod, too. So how do we become more creative? Can we become more creative? Or are we stuck with the stagnant amount of creative juice we were born with, swashing around up there inside our noggins?
We’re in luck. Creativity has become an increasingly studied aspect in various fields of developmental, social, and neuropsychology, as well as the fields of sociology, education, and others. And guess what? We can increase our creativity.
Cognitive neuroscientist Wilma Koutstaal, Ph.D. has researched the connections the human brain makes and how it adapts to new and problematic information. Studying the genesis, influential factors, development, predisposition to, and cultivation of creativity, Koutstaal has developed a cognitive framework called agility of the mind or agile thinking. Agile thinking is thought that moves keenly back and forth between abstract and specific modes of cognition. Think of it as the ability to adapt and mentally pivot between different ways of thinking, problems, and solutions, all while still continually affected by the processes of normal, daily life: action, motivation, emotion, and environmental cues.
Koutstaal writes, “We—and our minds, brains, environments—are much more improvisational than we recognize, and we should learn and develop habits of thinking and acting that enable us to best capitalize on this to optimize creativity and innovation.”
This is where improv comes in. Neuroplasticity is a fairly recent discovery in neuropsychology—that our brains are not finished growing, learning, and changing when we reach adulthood (like most other physiological processes). Our brains can be shaped and molded and we can increase our creativity at any stage of life. Just because in infancy and adolescence we are growing and adapting and learning much more quickly than any other period in our lifespans does not mean that we are not able to be more creative later in life—we can train our brains, just like an athlete, to be more creative and innovative. The more you exercise new and unexplored connections and neural pathways in your brain, the stronger, more intelligent, and more creative your brain will become.
Improv is a fun way to do this. Some of the best examples of master storytellers in improvisation are the folks in the classic TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? These guys can dream up a scene with a setting, characters, a problem, and solution so quickly and humorously that they practically seem like wizards. Which they probably are.
One of my favorite improv games to teach (and play) is Scenes From a Hat—borrowed from Whose Line. I’ll yell out a topic statement to students standing onstage, such as “First drafts of movie lines.” And one by one they’ll have to quickly think of a funny or clever example that they then speak and act out to the audience. Generally it takes people a couple attempts to warm up to the concept, but soon we get answers such as a squinty-eyed, deep voiced “Go ahead, make my cake” and we’re all laughing.
So just because you’re not an infant or adolescent with rapidly developing physiological processes, don’t think you can’t become more creative, because you can. Try stepping back from a problem at work and ask yourself how a middle schooler might tackle it. Force yourself to find a connection within a conversation and make a funny joke about it. Picture yourself as a character in a specific scene the next time you are presenting to a group. Soon the new neural pathways you make will develop and strengthen inside your brain, and you will find yourself mentally pivoting and using them more and more. The connections, the creative solutions, the stories you tell will become more innovative and more meaningful everyday. And who knows where those stories might take us?