Friday, April 5, 2013

Inhibition and Improvisation in Roleplaying

Sometimes, a series of seemingly unrelated events will all come together in my life in a way that shouts IMPORTANT to me. This happened not too long ago.

I was running late, so I was in the car at an unexpected time, only long enough to hear the opening of a radio program where the host talked about a recent study where they had a bunch of improvisational jazz musicians play improv jazz while receiving an MRI scan. Now the image of a pianist inside a MRI tube has been amusing me for close to a week, but that was not the remarkable part of the story. The MRIs showed the creativity centers of the brain all lit up, just like one would expect, but it also showed the part of the brain that self-censors with less activity. The inhibition parts of the brain shut down while someone trained in improvisation was plying their craft.

The study was done with jazz musicians, but I believe it could equally be applied to other types of improv artists, like actors and first-person roleplayers. What is that you say? First-person roleplayers are not actors? Well I think there is an element of acting involved as I explained here and if you don’t believe me check out the LH Bibliography because most of them agree with me too.

The day after I heard about the Jazz musicians I was participating in a role-player training where the training leader assured us that she would not make us play any of those “silly games” like the one with the “imaginary ball”.

I know exactly the one she is talking about: You all stand around in the circle and someone mimes holding a ball, they determine the size and shape, and get that across to everyone else through pantomime, by hefting the pretend ball, and gripping it, then throwing it to another person in the room who must change the size, shape, weight etc. of the pretend ball before pretend throwing it to someone else. If you let it, this activity can make you feel incredibly silly, that is the self-censoring part of your brain talking. If you are able to let it go and let your imagination discover the size and heft of the imaginary ball you are quieting your self-censor and letting the creativity and positivity parts of your brain activate.

I think Improvisation can be a masterful tool. It can help us get “into character” and better imagine life back then. It can help us find interesting ways to portray the facts and figures we’ve been researching. Most importantly, it can help us meet every single visitor from an open and inviting position, we don’t have to bore then with a pre-prepared story, we can have a conversation and make a real connection. All of these things are one thousand times harder if our self-censor is telling us: “you’re dressed funny, you don’t know all the facts, they might be offended if you say something like that!”

One of the things Stephen and I talk about every time we get in front of a group to talk about first-person is we say: “You are dressed funny, you will make an ass of yourself, it is okay.” Up until now I knew it to be true but could not tell you why. After reading the article about the jazz musicians I can say, “Your prefrontal cortex wants to get in the way here, but in this instance the creativity centers in your brain need to be in charge.”

When the trainer in the roleplaying session at Strawbery Banke said for the second time “we won’t be playing those silly games” with a wrinkle in her nose and a superior air I just had to speak up. I briefly told the group about the study on the brain, and that those games actually could help them get closer to the brain activity that will make them better role-players. I just pointed out the study, I did not belabor the point. I can only hope that a few of them heard what I had to say.


  1. I've recently been pondering the "I feel silly" issue I/we (the group) has since we've floated trying FP at least a dozen times since our group formed. None of us seem to have an issue doing FP for the public. The issue is feeling silly role playing during our private events. At the core I think is that since we already know who the other person is in real life, believing in the persona is just too hard and therefore reality creeps back in and reminds us how silly acting it out is.

    Does DGF have private events; if so, do the members stay in character for them? Alternately, do you(pl) stay in character after the public leaves? Do you feel either situation less "silly" or about the same? What can we do about being more inhibited at private events than public?

    1. Hi Gobae,

      Das Geld Fahnlein has not done any private "in character" events, though we do tend to stay a bit in character after the public leaves (mostly because it can be hard to put the characters behind us). I think without a reason to play someone other than yourself it does not make sense to ask people to do so. Yes it is silly, and child like, adults usually don't do it because they do not have a reason to. One of the major reasons I would want to do an in-character private event is to further explore the difference in the medieval mindset, to have those private conversations one would never have in front of the public, to really think about how a small group would interact in a much more visibly stratified society.

      At my job I start to get into character on the way in to work, and will remain in character as much as possible during my lunch break, so that when visitors come to my house there will be no pause between their action and Mrs. Shapiro's reaction (by having to go through Alena.) If your folks are interested in being able to think and react in a way closer to how an Iron Age Celt may have, then you will certainly need to quiet your prefrontal cortex.

  2. I love reading your blog, precisely for topics like this, & I gave you a Very Inspiring Blogger award at

    1. Hi Trystan,
      Thanks so much! It is so great to know people are reading, and that some folks might be interested in my opinions on Living History. I'd love to know more specifically what you mean by "topics like this"...


    2. Improvisation is a fave. topic of mine, but I esp. liked here how you took a put-down (the 'silly game w/the ball') & showed how it doesn't have to be that way. Nice twist :)

  3. One of these days I have to see Strawberry Banke. I live in Boston and have never been.

  4. A very thoughtful post Alena. Especially the 'you are dressed funny - you will make an ass of yourself' part...
    Sometimes I will be all dressed up good and proper and at an event and my brain will suddenly stop for a moment - only for a moment - and I will think: "What the heck am I doing here dressed like this?" And, for a split second, really feel like a fool.
    And now I, too, understand why.
    Thank God I can shake it off and enjoy the rest of my time immersed in the past.