Fear is the Mind Killer

“She was playing at the height of her intellect.”
This is something I’ve heard said of improvisers who’ve just executed a show with brilliant wizardry.

“I was in my head.”
This is what many improvisers say when we feel we made the stupidest possible choices, miscommunicated and disengaged during an improv set.

I recently read about one theory of brain organization that may give us a clearer understanding of what happens when I feel I’ve been “in my head.” I’ve got some ideas about how we can get out!

First, let’s take a deep (and brief) look inside our brains.
The Triune Brain Theory contends that the human brain has three parts that evolved from the inside out.
The three layers interact with one another, but each one controls specific brain functions. Let’s start with the newest, most evolutionarily advanced layer of the brain.
The neo-cortex (aka the cerebral cortex, 5/6 of the brain) allows us to communicate with language, move our bodies, use our 5 senses, reason logically, and create plans. All of these sound thought processes are essential for improvisation. When people say they’re playing at the top of their intellect, they literally are. All thoughtful improv happens in the neo-cortex, right there at the top of your brain!
Underneath the neo cortex, we find the limbic system (aka mammalian brain). I like to think of the limbic system as our cave man brain. This part of our brain works in our quest for food and sex. This is where we process our feelings. This is where we attach to other people. If you’re a well-rounded improviser, you’re thinking: I use that part of my brain a lot in improv, too. Yeah, you do! There’s something great about staring deeply into a fellow improviser’s eyes to find a scene-driving connection.
Deep down is a small part of your brain called The Reptilian System (aka R-complex, mostly brainstem). The R-complex controls instinctive, automatic behaviors. These behaviors are geared toward resisting change. One of the instincts that get activated in this part of the brain is a reflex known as fight or flight.
Triune brain theorists don’t think we only use our R-complex when we get scared. They don’t think the neo-cortex and limbic system shut down. However, there is evidence to support the idea that the systems act in support of one another as needed. So when we’re scared, the functions of the R-complex are prioritized. 1

What does all this mean? It means when we feel we’ve been in our heads, we’re actually just in the wrong part of our heads. Or more accurately, we’re trying to use the least improv-friendly part of our head to do improv.  

Say this to yourself, and see if it feels true:  When I felt stuck in my head, I was not overthinking. I was not being overly introspective. I’m not a shitty improviser. I didn’t just blank out for no reason. I was scared, fearful, anxious or sometimes even terrified.
“Fear is the mind killer.” 2 
Let me tell you what some people think happens to the human brain when we get fearful.
Once the fight or flight instinct becomes active, everything we experience is first viewed as a possible threat to survival. Our limbic system and neo cortex are either not as active, or acting in support of the R-Complex. People we encounter are perceived first as possible enemies. We feel like our scene partners are trying to put us in a tough scenario. We focus on that which might threaten our social survival (make us look like foolish failures). Everything is filtered through fear. 3 We throw out random ideas that don’t connect logically. We emotionally disengage from our scene partners. We try to exit the scene. In a worst-case-scenario, we shoot our scene partners with an imaginary handgun.
What are we so afraid of? I made a list. Add your own fears to it if you want.

  • The criticism of other improvisers, instructors or coaches
  • Looking stupid, lost, confused or afraid in front of the audience
  • Being stupid, lost, confused or afraid
  • Screwing up a scene with a bad choice
  • Running out of ideas
  • Breaking character or giggling
  • Denying a scene partners endowment
  • Breaking out of the show’s predetermined format
  • Bodily injury
  • Saying/doing something untrue
  • Being forced to play characters or scenarios that are against personal moral convictions
  • Forgetting everything learned

The good news: we don’t have to stay afraid. Here are some options for ending the fight or flight response:
Option 1: Fight

  • Argue with your scene partners.
  • Scream a bunch of nonsense.
  • Shoot all of your scene partners with your improv gun.

Option 2: Flight

  • Run off stage and end the scene.
  • Freeze.
  • Quit doing improv. Stop taking risks. Renew your netflix subscription and order a pizza. Stay home.

Those options suck, right? You want to hear a third option that helps you stay in the scene and be a badass improviser, right? Never fear.
Option 3: Drive out fear.
Good news! The logical and emotional parts of our brain can influence the R-complex.
We drive out our fear by relaxing our bodies and reminding ourselves that we are not, in fact in imminent danger. We remember that our physical and emotional needs are taken care of. We are, in fact in a safe place. Emotionally, we are glad to be doing this performance art we love with people who care about us.
You may be asking, “How the hell do I supposed to stay relaxed when I’m on stage with no script and so few things are in my control?”
This is where we need mantras and litanies against fear. We need constant reminders of some truths about fear, about improv and especailly about ourselves.
Let’s start with the “litany against fear” an interesting one from the sci-fi series, Dune.

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain. “

Here is one I made up:

This is improv.
This moment in this space with these people will only happen once.
I am a badass co-creating imaginary universes with other badasses.
I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.
I can do whatever I want.
I love this.
This is improv.

Here is a litany against fear from the Bible:

“There is no fear in love.
But perfect love drives out fear,
because fear has to do with punishment.
The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 4

Your scene partners want you to look like a badass. If everyone is doing their job, there will be no mistakes. We spot one another. Any choice is made to fit into the world we are creating. You may have heard this referred to as the principle of “Yes, and.” At The New Movement, we call it ultimate back having.
“I got your back!” is a litany against fear we often say to one another before shows.
By building trust with one another (on and off stage) we begin to believe that our scene partners really do have our back. Once we believe this, the love and support we feel from our fellow improvisers puts us at ease. We will stay relaxed, we stay in our improviser brains. We stay out of our reptilian brain.
We love ourselves by believing we are badass improvisers. We love our scene partners by believing we are there to make them look like badasses. 5 We love the art form known as improv by believing this mysterious conundrum: Improv, when done correctly is something at which it is impossible to fail.
Love drives out fear. The more perfectly we love, the less our fear will keep us from the amazing improv wizardry of which we are all capable!

-Matt Graham


Show 5 footnotes

  1.   Developer of the triune brain theory, Paul MacLean, used to be the Director for the Laboratory of the Brain and Behavior at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health. All information about this theory came from: Caine, Renate Nummela and Geoffrey Caine.  Making Connections:  Teaching and the Human Brain. Nashville, TN: Incentive Publications, 1990.
  2. Herbert, Frank. Dune. Putnam Pub Group, 1965. 
  3. http://www.thebodysoulconnection.com/EducationCenter/fight.html 
  4. 1 John 4:18 
  5. I must give props to CJ Hunt, Mike Spara and Derek Dupey for leading an amazing Improv Wins workshop called “How to be a worker.” This idea was first introduced to me at said workshop.