Short-Form, Comedy Improv Affects the Functional Connectivity in the Brain of Adolescents with Complex Developmental Trauma as Measured by qEEG: A Single Group Pilot Study

  • Mary DeMichele Neuro Feedback Department, Calo Programs, Lake Ozark, Missouri,
  • Scott Kuenneke Neuro Feedback Department, Calo Programs, Lake Ozark, Missouri,
Keywords: functional connectivity, improv, adolescents with trauma, alternative therapies, improvisational theater, complex developmental trauma


Complex developmental trauma (CDT) is characterized by prolonged exposure to traumatic events in early life, resulting in the breakdown of neurobiological integration which impacts mental and physical health.  The benefits of practicing short-form improvisation (improv), however, parallel the treatment needs of this population.  To observe the neurobiological effect of improv, we used eyes-open quantitative electroencephalography (qEEG) to record the brains of 32 adolescents before and after participation in a 20-min intervention (One Rule Improv) consisting of short-form improv games.  A paired t-test was used to evaluate coherence, phase, absolute amplitude, and low-resolution electromagnetic tomography (LORETA).  Results indicated increases in coherence in delta, theta, alpha, and beta (p < .05).  Phase lag showed a statistical decrease (p < .05) in delta, alpha, and beta.  Absolute power showed significant increases in alpha frontally Fp1 (p = .004), decreases in delta (p = .030) at T4.  LORETA analysis indicated significant changes in sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) at Brodmann area (BA) 6, t(27) = 6.1, p < .05.  Significant delta decreased at BA 6, BA 10, t(27) = 4.96, p < .05; and BA 24, t(27) = 3.90.  Significant delta decreased at BA 4, BA 3, and BA 40, t(27) = 4.35, p < .05.  Results indicate preliminary evidence supporting improv as an intervention capable of affecting functional connectivity changes in adolescents with CDT.  For developmental trauma, these results may indicate improved capacity to make meaningful connections with others and create opportunities for neuroplastic changes.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Bremner, J. D., Walker, J. D., Whitfield, C., Perry, B. D., … Giles, W. H. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 256(3), 174–186.

Applied Neuroscience, Inc. (2008). NeuroGuide Manual. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from Manual.pdf

Atzil, S., Hendler, T., & Feldman, R. (2011). Specifying the neurobiological basis of human attachment: Brain, hormones and behavior in synchronous and intrusive mothers. Neuropsychopharmacology, 36(13), 2603–2615.

Ballon, B. C., Silver I., & Fidler, D. (2007). Headspace theater: An innovative method for experiential learning of psychiatric symptomatology using modified role-playing and improvisation theater techniques. Academic Psychiatry, 31, 380–387.

Baylin, J. F., & Hughes, D. A. (2016). The neurobiology of attachment-focused therapy: Enhancing connection and trust in the treatment of children and adolescents. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Berghänel, A., Schülke, O., & Ostner, J. (2015). Locomotor play drives motor skill acquisition at the expense of growth: A life history trade-off. Science Advances, 1(7), e1500451.

Bermant, G. (2013). Working with(out) a net: Improvisational theater and enhanced well-being. Frontiers in Psychology, December 10.

Bowyer, S. M. (2016). Coherence a measure of the brain networks: Past and present. Neuropsychiatric Electrophysiology, 2, 1.

BrainMaster Discovery 24 and Discovery 20 EEG systems [Computer software and hardware]. Bedford, OH: BrainMaster Technologies.

Carlson, N. R. (2012). Physiology of behavior (11th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Corbett, B. A., Ioannou, S., Key, A. P., Coke, C., Muscatello, R., Vandekar, S., & Muse, I. (2019). Treatment effects in social cognition and behavior following a theater-based intervention for youth with autism. Developmental Neuropsychology, 44(7), 481–494.

Damasio, A. R. (1985). The frontal lobes. In K. M. Heilman & E. Valenstein (Eds.), Clinical Neuropsychology (pp. 339–375. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

De Bellis, M. D., & Zisk, A. (2014). The biological effects of childhood trauma. Child Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23(2), 185–222.

DeMichele, M. (2015). Improv and ink: Increasing individual writing fluency with collaborative improv. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(10). Retrieved from

DeMichele, M. (2019). One rule improv: The fast, easy, no fear approach to teaching, learning and applying improv. Lake Ozark, MO: Academic Play.

Donnay, G. F., Rankin, S. K., Lopez-Gonzalez, M., Jiradejvong, P., & Limb, C, J. (2014). Neural substrates of interactive musical improvisation: An fMRI study of ‘trading fours’ in jazz. PLoS ONE, 9(2), e88665.

Electro-Cap system [Apparatus]. Eaton, OH: Electro-Cap International, Inc.

Etkin, A., Egner, T., & Kalisch, R. (2011). Emotional processing in anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(2), 85–93.

Felsman, P, Seifert, C. M., & Himle, J. A. (2019). The use of improvisational theater training to reduce social anxiety in adolescents. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 63, 111–117.

Felsman, P., Gunawardena, S., & Seifert, C. M. (2020). Improv experience promotes divergent thinking, uncertainty tolerance, and affective well-being. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 35, 100632.

Gale, J. (2004). Experiencing relational thinking: Lessons from Improvisational Theater1: Experiencing relational thinking. Context, 75, 10–12.

Gunnar, M., & Quevedo, K. (2007). The neurobiology of stress and development. Annals Review of Psychology, 58, 145–173.

Hainselin, M., Aubry, A., & Bourdin, B. (2018). Improving teenagers’ divergent thinking with improvisational theater. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1759.

Halpern, C., Close, D., & Johnson, K. (1994). Truth in comedy: The manual of improvisation. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Publishers.

Johnston, K. (1992). Impro: Improvisation and the theatre. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kagan, J. (2002). Surprise, uncertainty, and mental structures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kisiel, C., Blaustein, M., Spinazzola, J., Schmidt, C. S., Zucker, M., & van der Kolk, B. (2006). Evaluation of at a theater-based youth violence prevention program for elementary school children. Journal of School Violence, 5(2), 19–36.

Krueger, K. R., Murphy, J. W., & Bink, A. B. (2017). Thera-prov: A pilot study of improv used to treat anxiety and depression. Journal of Mental Health, 28(6), 1–6.

Landau, A. T., & Limb, C. J. (2017). The neuroscience of improvisation. Music Educators Journal, 103(3), 27–33.

Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS ONE, 3(2), e1679.

Liu, S., Chow, H. M., Xu, Y., Erkkinen, M. G., Swett, K. E., Eagle, M. W., … Braun, A. R. (2012). Neural correlates of lyrical improvisation: An fMRI study of freestyle rap. Scientific Reports, 2, 834.

López-González, M., & Limb, C. J. (2012). Musical creativity in the brain. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2012, 2.

McPherson, M. J., Barrett, F. S., Lopez-Gonzalez, M., Jiradejvong, P., & Limb, C. J. (2016). Emotional intent modulates the neural substrates of creativity: An fMRI study of emotionally targeted improvisation in jazz musicians. Scientific Reports, 6, 18460.

Nunez, P. (1981). Electrical fields of the brain. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Nunez, P. (1995). Neocortical dynamics and human EEG rhythms. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Panksepp J., & Panksepp, J. B. (2013). Toward a cross-species understanding of empathy. Trends in Neuroscience, 36(8), 489–496.

Pascual-Marqui, R. D., Esslen, M., Kochi, K., & Lehmann, D. (2002). Functional imaging with low-resolution brain electromagnetic tomography (LORETA): A review. Methods and Findings in Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology, 24(Suppl. C), 91–95.

Pascual-Marqui, R. D., Michel, C. M., & Lehmann, D. (1994). Low resolution electromagnetic tomography: A new method for localizing electrical activity in the brain. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 18(1), 49–65.

Paus, T. (2001). Primate anterior cingulate cortex: Where motor control, drive and cognition interface. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2(6), 417–424.

Pechtel, P., & Pizzagalli, D. A. (2011). Effects of early life stress on cognitive and affective function: An integrated review of human literature. Psychopharmacology, 214(1), 55–70.

Reed, C. L., & Caselli, R. J. (1994). The nature of tactile agnosia: A case study. Neuropsychologia, 32(5), 527–539.

Sasaki, M., Iversen, J., & Callan, D. E. (2019). Music improvisation is characterized by increase EEG spectral power in prefrontal and perceptual motor cortical sources and can be reliably classified from non-improvisatory performance. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13, 435.

Sawyer, R. K. (1997). Pretend play as improvisation: Conversation in the preschool classroom. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Sawyer, R. K. (2017). Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Schore, A. N. (2012). The science of the art of psychotherapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Schore, A. N. (2014). The right brain is dominant in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 51(3), 388–397.

Schwenke, D., Dshemuchadse, M., Rasehorn, L., Klarhölter, D., & Scherbaum, S. (2020). Improv to improve: The impact of improvisational theater on creativity, acceptance, and psychological well-being. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health.

Semendeferi, K., Armstrong, E., Schleicher, A., Zilles, K., & Van Hoesen, G. W. (2001). Prefrontal cortex in humans and apes: A comparative study of area 10. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 114(3), 224–241.<224::AID-AJPA1022>3.0.CO;2-I

Siegel, D. J. (2012). Pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology: An integrative handbook of the mind. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Soutar, R. G., & Longo, R. E. (2011). Doing neurofeedback: An introduction. San Rafael, CA: ISNR Research Foundation.

Spolin, V. (1963). Improvisation for the theater. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Stein, J. (2017). Sensorimotor control. Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology.

Sweet, J. (1986). Something wonderful right away. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.

Teicher, M. H., Samson, J. A., Anderson, C. M., & Ohashi, K. (2016). The effects of childhood maltreatment on brain structure, function, and connectivity. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17(10), 652–666.

Thatcher, R. W. (2010). Validity and reliability of quantitative electroencephalography. Journal of Neurotherapy, 14(2), 122–152.

van der Kolk, B. A. (2005). Developmental trauma disorder: Toward a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 401–408.

Warner, S. (2013). Cheat sheet for neurofeedback. Retrieved on March 4, 2020, from

Wasson, S. (2017). Improv nation: How we made a great american art. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.

Zucker, M., Spinazzola, J., Pollack, A. A., Pepe, L., Barry, S., Zhang, L., & van der Kolk, B. (2010). Getting teachers in on the act: Evaluation of a theater- and classroom-based youth violence prevention program. Journal of School Violence, 9(2), 117–135.

Research Papers