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Improvising With Hippos

Nikki-Anne Wilson is a PhD student based at the Brain and Mind Centre at The University of Sydney. Her research examines how imagination contributes to social behaviour, specifically, whether the inability to imagine may explain the loss of social skills in dementia. She is also an LMA student, a wannabe improv star and lover of tea. Follow her on Twitter

You step out on stage, your heart is pounding and suddenly you’re expected to create an entire scene from a one-word cue? Surely that is hard enough, no one told you that using your imagination would be giving your memory system a workout too! While I can’t say that improv will give you a memory six-pack, research shows that imagination uses the same brain areas as remembering the past and thinking about the future.

”While we tend to think of memory as our brain pressing the play button on Netflix and letting the show roll, memory is actually a reconstructive process, involving different parts of the brain bringing together all the details of the scene as you’re happily chilling”.

This is a bit like what you’re doing when you improvise – you need to lay down the basics of the location and the spatial layout (using a part of your brain called your temporal lobes); the social relationships and emotional elements (prefrontal areas of the brain and the limbic system) and maybe even some sensory details as well (posterior parietal cortex). Then you have to bring all of this together into a cohesive scenario. This is what your brain is doing every time you decide that you want to remember that time you played a highly amusing prank on your friend Dazza involving a razor and his eyebrows.

In my line of work, creating a rich and cohesive mental image in your mind’s eye is called scene construction and the main part of the brain that appears to be working to bring all of this together is called the hippocampus. “The hippo what now?”, I hear you say. I assure you no hippopotamuses were harmed in the making of this blog post. The name hippocampus actually comes from the Greek “hippos”, meaning horse and “kampos”, meaning sea-monster because the hippocampus looks sort of like a sea-horse curling around the temporal lobe of your brain.

We have known for a long time that the hippocampus is important for memory thanks to a guy by the name of Henry Molaison (H.M.) who had both of his hippocampi removed from his brain because his doctor thought it would cure his epilepsy. It did, however, the poor guy couldn’t remember much ever again. But research now shows that the hippocampus isn’t just important for memory – it’s important for lots of things for which we need to create a cohesive spatial representation in our mind, like thinking about that party next week, finding your way back to your car or maybe even building an improv scene.

So the next time you find yourself accidentally walking through a wall on stage, blame the hippos for just not spatially integrating it well enough in your mind. But spare a thought for the old hippocampus too because if your heart is beating at a thousand miles an hour when you step onto that stage, your memory system might just be working on that six-pack too.

1. Hassabis, D., & Maguire, E. A. (2009). The Construction System of the Brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 364, 1263–1271. http://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195395518.003.0026

2. I have no actual evidence for improv recruiting these brain areas, this is merely my not completely uneducated opinion!