New study highlights improv’s benefits on the brains of trauma survivors

Brainefits?? Ugh, never mind…

2 min readApr 8, 2021

Last week, Psychology Today reported on a new study that points to improv as a potential therapeutic treatment for trauma survivors, along with numerous cognitive benefits, and we’ve been blasting “Vindicated” by Dashboard Confessional at our desks ever since.

Building on the groundbreaking fMRI research of none other than Speechless advisor, UCSF neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb, the study provides even more evidence that improv isn’t just “silly team building,” but that it “changes the brain in significant, measurable ways.”

What they did

Over 8 months, researchers mapped the brains of 32 teens aged 15–18, suffering from Complex Developmental Trauma before, during, and after 20 minutes sessions of unstructured social time, compared with comedy improv sessions.

What they found

These 20-minute improv sessions benefitted the teens’ brains in 3 ways:

  1. Coherence: brain function became more integrated and effective from pre-to-post assessment. Researchers credit the “Yes And” rule for creating a “safe space to embrace uncertainty.”
  2. Decreased “phase lag”: communication between brain areas slowed down during improvisation, which is actually a good thing. PT notes that elevated phase lag indicates “overthinking and inefficient processing of information.”
  3. Heightened sensory perception: Participants were better able to process and react to sounds and movements, allowing them to “better engage in social interactions.”

Why it matters

Aside from further validating our company mission and the research of our colleagues, this is a huge milestone in the world of trauma research in the midst of a globally traumatic event — the long-term cognitive effects of which we won’t understand for some time.

It also highlights improv as a potential coping strategy as we prepare for “re-entry” in a post-vaccinated world, and a way to quickly create the sense of safety needs to shift from “survival-mode” to a more “integrated nervous system.”

And finally, this study is also one of the first to look at novice improvisers, meaning, you don’t have to practice improv for 20 years to reap the rewards — you just have to jump in.




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