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Innovation and Improvisation—It’s All About Focus


Tue Sep 30 2014

Innovation and Improvisation—It’s All About Focus

n the previous two posts of this series, we talked about effective brainstorming to drive innovation. After all, creativity, product development and ideas are the Holy Grail of the new economy. Organizations are scrambling to grow innovative cultures, hire creative people, and find that next big breakthrough. 

So that drove me to wonder, when is the brain most creative, most able to innovate? Believe it or not, it’s during a state of improvisation. 


Improvisational performers and musicians have always known that there is a magical state called “focus and flow.” That is when a troupe or single performer is in a state of off-script and off-music creation, utterly in the moment and without inhibition. It is in this state that even scientists have reported unconscious breakthroughs and ideas. 

Unfortunately, our modern world is making reaching this state of unconscious creation more and more difficult. What is the culprit? 

Enter multitasking 

The past decade has produced many studies proving the cognitive detriment of multitasking. Even the youngest generation, those born into the electronic, multitasking world, are suffering. A study from London University proves that multitaskers lose IQ. 

And get this: when studied side by side with marijuana smokers, multitaskers lose IQ at more than twice the rate of cannabis users. Fortunately, the loss is short term, and our ability to think and work returns to normal when we focus. 


So, if we’re turning our brains to low-level multitasking, how do we regain our ability to create inventions, great novels, and disease-killing drugs? 

Enter improvisation 

Improvisation is nature’s answer; it lets the brain run free. Improvisation actually orders the brain to shut down regions of itself that would interfere with the free-flowing process of creation. Distractions are eliminated; self-consciousness is unplugged. 

It simply requires us to enter a state of focus. In 2010, Aaron Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari studied the brain activity of musicians and non-musicians. Highly trained musicians, when improvising, entered a different chemical state. Their brains shut down the temporo-parietal junction, which allows your attention to be distracted by peripheral stimulus like a shiny object or movement, sound or color. Also shut down were the lateral, prefrontal regions, which are the areas that control inhibition and self-consciousness. Conversely, there was a surge of medial prefrontal activity, where expressiveness occurs in the brain. 

Amanda Rose Martinez explains it well in the Seed magazine article, “The Improvisational Brain,”  “In other words, in the improviser’s brain, the area that imposes self-restraint powers down, allowing the region that drives self-expression, which ramps up, to proceed virtually unchecked.” 


Enter a state of absorption 

True improvisation occurs when years of experience allow a performer, athlete, musician, or scientist to enter a mixed state of conscious and subconscious. When a person knows so much about a subject or has done something for so long that it’s no longer entirely conscious, they can go “off script.” 

They begin creating, dancing, or speaking a foreign language without the need for a plan or self-conscious editor. Things come out that are perfect, yet uncalculated. All those years and hours of experience come together and throw out new material. In this state of “flow,” they are no longer consciously in control, but innovation flows out of them. 

The beauty here is that almost anyone is capable of this state—engineers, mathematicians, and mechanics—often report entering a state of timeless absorption when faced with a puzzle they need to solve or a project that captures their imagination. 

So the question is: What have you done forever? What is your special ability? Try to create a way to enter total absorption, where time and cares fall away. Can you: 

  • allow for total absorption—remove distractions

  • allow for abandon—remove observers, only players allowed

  • allow for play—nothing is wrong and everything is fun. 

The idea is to take the reins off your brain, and allow it to focus and run. When you can go deeply into a subject, you can begin to improvise with what you know, creating new pathways, new processes, and new innovations. Improvisation is a beautifully deep and absorbing process, and one that your brain already knows how to accomplish.

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