Going into the Unknown, Together

The actors on the stage work their magic, turning a few disparate phrases - "challenge, giving birth, infinity, chaos, visiting a new country" - into a brief but charming improvised sketch, to the delight of the audience. But the viewers, filling a large auditorium at the Weizmann Institute of Science, expect more than to be entertained. Since the improvised play is part of a lecture by Prof. Uri Alon, a Molecular Cell Biologist, they know scientific insights are bound to follow.

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Indeed. Combining his two passions, science and theater, Alon has recently created a "theater lab" on the Weizmann campus, as part of the Institute's new Human Brain and Mind Program. The "lab" is a twice-weekly workshop that brings together Weizmann scientists and actors from the Kartoshkes Ensemble Playback Theater, in an attempt to subject to rigorous scientific analysis topics that are not always easy to define, let alone quantify - creativity, spontaneity, togetherness.

The theater lab has just produced its first scientific paper: a study that explored the optimal conditions for improvisation, considered to be central to the creative process. Reported in December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, the research was performed by Alon and Drs. Lior Noy and Erez Dekel.

Inspiration for the study came from stories about moments of togetherness experienced by improvising musicians and actors. In such moments, joint improvisers reportedly achieve a high level of performance, without knowing who is leading and who is following. As the scientists write in their paper: "These reports raise interesting questions: How does joint improvisation work? Does improvising together indeed lead to better performance? And does joint improvisation differ from simply following an improvising leader?"

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It was through the mirror game, a fundamental practice in improvisation theater and dance therapy, that the scientists decided to address these questions. In this game, two players imitate each other, producing coherent dance-like motion. The game may tap into a basic form of social communication known as mirroring, thought to be involved in the establishment of parent-baby bonds, in enhancing children's play and in fostering rapport between people at large.

The mirror game in the study was based on a rectangular device with two parallel slits, each outfitted with a handle that could be moved along the slit. Two players facing one another were each asked to slide one of the handles left or right, in a manner that would create synchronized motion together. They performed several rounds of the game; in some of these, one player led the game while the other followed; other rounds consisted of joint improvisation without a leader.

The scientists found that joint improvisation worked best. Without a designated leader, the players functioned as if they were both leaders, acting in agreement; they achieved smoother, more synchronized motion with almost no jitter, compared with the rounds in which one of them had been appointed leader. This finding, however, held true only for experienced improvisers; novices did not seem to enter the co-leadership state and had lower overall performance, particularly when no leader was designated. In other words, joint improvisation seems to be a skill that can improve with training. "Future studies can explore what conditions and training may enhance the likelihood of entering states of togetherness, such as the co-confident motion defined in this study," the scientists wrote in conclusion.

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How does all this relate to science? Understanding how improvisation works can help create optimal conditions for generating new, original ideas in research, Prof. Alon said. In his lecture at the Weizmann Institute, entitled "Going into the Unknown, Together: Science and Improvisation Theater," he dwelt on the inner critic in all of us, a "censor" that stifles originality. One way of bypassing the critic is a basic technique of improvisation theater - an approach to communication known as "Yes, and," which consists of building on the other person's idea rather than blocking it. Alon says he uses this technique widely, particularly in mentoring students, as a way of stimulating a wide range of daring ideas that can later be sifted through with greater precision.

Combining science with improvisation theater, Alon believes, can lead to concrete methods for helping scientists realize their full creative potential. No less important, what better way to enhance creativity than to remind yourself that doing science is fun.

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