Q&A with Nina Hsu: When Brain Science Meets Improv
Nina is Harold team player and Front of House manager at WIT. She’s also a cognitive neuroscientist. We recently caught up with her to about the applications of improv for scientific research, how improv has helped manage her “Type A” tendencies, and more.
You joke that you took your first improv class to help manage your “Type A” tendencies. There are plenty of Type A improvisers — sometimes, improv is like an escape, permission to turn all that off for a while; other times, it actually changes some of their offstage habits and tendencies. What’s your experience been like?
A little bit of both, actually. In rehearsals and on stage, I’ve found it both terrifying and satisfying to give up control and planning. My most memorable moments on stage have often come from instances where I honestly didn’t know what I was going to say or do in the moment until I did it. And, I’ve really appreciated improv’s impact on my off-stage tendencies. I’m still a person with a stubborn preference to plan things down to the second, but I’ve become more relaxed around uncertainty and more confident that even if there isn’t a concrete plan in place, things are still going to work out.
Like most improvisers, you’re a researcher who studies the cognitive neuroscience of memory and language, using an array of behavioral, fMRI, and eye-tracking techniques. Wait a minute; we don’t know any other improvisers who do that. Tell us about your work! What research questions are you currently exploring? How did you get into it? How did you know this was what you wanted to study?
I’m a cognitive neuroscientist by training, which means that I’m interested in how the brain gives rise to all the amazing mental processes that we take for granted, like attention, memory, and language. Right now, I’m interested in how we recover from ambiguity in language. Each day, words hurtle toward you through written text and speech, and in order to be efficient, we usually try to interpret what we see/hear before the sentence finishes. Though we’re usually right, sometimes we’re wrong, and we “boggle” a bit. News headlines are classic in this way. For example, here’s one from the Guardian several years ago: “Princess Diana dresses to be auctioned.” Who’s on the auction block – Diana or her dresses? I’m interested in what mental processes you go through in order to recover from that “boggle.”
I first got into this work in college, when I took a class on memory and the brain. I think part of why I really enjoy this line of work is because these mental processes – memory, language – are so tightly linked to our individual identities. At least for me, my concept of myself arises from all the memories, communications, and interactions with the world that I’ve experienced since birth. So, I think it’s really scary to think about what happens when these things go wrong in memory and language disorders like amnesia or aphasia. The ultimate goal of a lot of this research is to understand how these processes work in healthy people, which can then inform how you might treat disorders in which these processes malfunction through clinical intervention or rehabilitation.
Do you find that you approach your work any differently, since getting involved with improv? How does “yes, and” gel with the scientific method?
I think improv has so many applications to research and academia! The most salient example for me comes from seminars and conferences, where there’s usually a Q&A session after someone gives a (well-rehearsed and carefully planned) talk. It’s so tempting to stick to one’s initial agenda and/or to deflect an unexpected question towards one that you know the answer to. That seems a lot to me like negating a gift or a reality in improv. So, rather than do that, agreeing to the premise (reality) of discussion by listening closely and carefully considering someone’s question can be a whole lot more productive.
More generally, I think one similarity between research and improv is that in both cases, you’re trying to extract signal from noise and to efficiently discover a meaningful, true relationship, whether it’s between two characters (improv) or two variables (research).
If someone gave you a grant, what would you want to look into with regard to how improv affects the brain?
This is actually a question I’ve thought a lot about since I started this whole improv journey! One thing we know is that the prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain near your forehead — is well-known to be involved in planning, monitoring, and sticking to the task at hand. This part of the brain is also among the last to fully mature in humans (and in fact is still going through extended maturation in children). And, one recent idea is that part of why kids are so creative and unfiltered (as any parent will know!) is because this part of the brain is still maturing.
So, I’ve been wondering how improv might affect this part of the brain. Basically, I wonder if experienced adult improvisers might actually have a prefrontal cortex that more resembles that of kids, because improvisers train so much on skills that encourage creativity and being in-the-moment (like kids), rather than the typical planning, monitoring, and staying-on-task processes that most adults normally stick to.
Who’s someone in the WIT community that you admire, and why?
Ahh, I admire everyone in the WIT community for their bravery and joy! If I have to pick one, Jordana Mishory comes to mind for me. I really admire her as a performer but she’s also a great teacher — her enthusiasm for the craft is infectious, and she instills confidence in her students. I’m also pretty sure that when she laughs, angels are giving each other high-fives.
What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
The latest episode of Jane the Virgin — it’s such a smart show!
Speaking of smart shows, did you know WIT alum Zhubin Parang is the head writer of The Daily Show? Sign up for the WIT newsletter to read our upcoming interview with him.
Do you want to give improv a try? Our Foundations of Improv class is registering now. Many sections for the winter term are already sold out, so don’t delay!