Cognitive Load

Cognitive Load

One of the biggest tenets that I push in all my classes and workshops is building an environment for scenes. I repeatedly encourage my actors to take the time to build themselves a world to work in, a playground to play in. It defeats the ever-present brain-drain of “being in your head”- that hideous voice of your internal editor that whispers on and on- “Who am I to my scene partner?” “Have I established a ‘want’ yet?” “Am I gossiping about characters outside the scene too much?” “Where do I fit into the larger narrative?” “Is this scene going to get edited soon?”


While all that whispering goes on, the scene itself is continuing, and the actor is staring into the middle distance, missing everything happening in the here and now. That is anathema to good scene work. Most improvisors know what that feels like, and it’s just not productive. Being in the moment, responsive, emotional, and vulnerable- that’s where it’s at. But how do you get there?

In an experiment highlighted in one of my favorite podcasts, RadioLab, Stanford University professor Baba Shiv gathered together some undergrads and gave them a task. A simple one. Memorize a number. Walk down a hall. Tell that number to the person at the end of the hall.

The numbers fell into two categories: 2 digits and 7 digits.

As each of the students walked down the hall, they were met halfway by another researcher who presented them with a thank you for their participation: A slice of chocolate cake or some fruit salad, their choice.

The students with 2 digits to memorize selected the cake or fruit more or less 50/50, as you would expect.
However, those with 7 digits to memorize were about TWICE as likely to select cake as fruit.

5 digits. That’s not much of a difference. But that extra “cognitive load”, the brain’s processing capacity for memorizing, was enough to make the students give into temptation. To make a choice not from their reasoned approach to food- is this good for me, is it worth the extra calories, how do I feel about cantaloupe- but from their visceral, emotional, amygdala-based response. Mm. Cake. Yummy.

In the brain, the prefrontal cortex is considered something of a “manager” of the impulses of the amygdala. It’s what keeps us from screaming at that guy who stepped on our shoe in an elevator or running across the street through heavy traffic. But in the world of improv, letting the more emotional, gut impulses rule is often a good way to keep yourself emotionally connected to the moment, in the here and now, and not worrying about all the things your inner voice has to say.

improv adage:
to get out of your head, get into your body.

So how do we apply the Stanford experiment here? Simple. If we can give the brain a little something extra to do (remember, just 5 digits!), it will keep the “manager” busy so the emotional responses can come more smoothly. I have worked this in almost every class I have ever taught, and I teach it to every ensemble I direct. Use your body. Move. Build a scene’s physical space through mime work. Touch your scene partner. Time after time, it has been an almost magical switch that flips. Actors who have otherwise struggled to connect emotionally get themselves knee-deep in building an environment, and the voices in their heads quiet down. Their scenework improves incredibly.

I’ve had actors tell me they thought they were doing a terrible scene because they were so focused on their environment that they were “ignoring” their scene partner. What I find ironic is that, whenever that’s the feedback I get, the actor is actually doing a better, more emotionally connected scene because they were focused on their environment and not “focused” on their scene partner.

Give it a chance the next time you’re in a scene. Give a ton of focus to your environment. It will help you, I promise.

And yes, there’s definitely many more benefits to having a richly developed environment, but that’s another blog.

Tony Rielage
Artistic Director
Theatre Momentum

Looking for more feedback like this? Join us any Sunday for Workshop-in-Progress! First time is always free, and then it’s just $5. And there’s always candy! 🙂

Looking to join a TM production? We’ll be holding auditions for Fugue State coming up on May 16th and 20th! Get signed up!

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