Improv in an MRI

Robin Ince takes part in a brain activity experiment

In 2015 Cosmic Genome host Robin Ince went along to take part in an experiment on brain activity being conducted at University College London.  The UCL team have been monitoring the brain’s activity during improvisation and playing a version of the BBC show ‘Just a Minute’ with a number of people, particularly comedians, to see how their brains work compared to ‘normal’ people.  So Robin was placed in an MRI to riff and then chatted with the head of the experiment, Dr Joseph Devlin from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, afterwards.  



Preliminary findings can be read about here


A full transcript of Robin and Joseph’s chat is below:

Robin – What is the activity you’re monitoring?

Joseph – Right, so the activity looks a little bit different, let me see if I can…what’s a good window for bringing up activity, let’s just grab one of these.  So what it’s doing is it’s just taking a very quick picture of your brain every one second and it’s taking a whole bunch of little slices sort of from the top all the way down to the bottom, in fact, you can just about see your eyes.

Robin – Right, yeah.

Joseph – So, it’s a little bit ghosty because these are happening in just one second through the whole brain, and then what we’ve done is we’ve taken like 500 of these over the ten minutes that you were speaking and this is sensitive to oxygen levels in your blood which vary depending on how much activity a particular brain area has. So as soon as an area becomes active, it increases its oxygen and the blood flow there increases to compensate so you don’t run out and have a stroke.

And the changes are actually incredibly small, if we flip through this you wouldn’t really see anything, they all look the same.  So what we really do is we run it through some fairly serious number crunching that takes about 7 or 8 hours and that’s what leads to those colour pictures that we overlay on your brain and we say, OK, well when Robin was doing the Just a Minute task relative to counting, these are the brain areas that were preferentially engaged.

And the counting serves as a sort of control: when you’re counting you’re still speaking, you’re still hearing your voice, that’s not the stuff we’re really interested in, so we can kind of subtract that out and see what was going on in the rest of the brain when you’re thinking about actually producing the speech, you’re controlling the way you’re producing the speech, but you’re not worried so much about the mechanics.

So that’s what we’ll do with these images but that takes us…it will be at least tomorrow at the very earliest before we have those numbers, and programmes like House and ER have done us no favours because they have these great shots of all these colours showing up on the screen while someone’s in the scanner, which doesn’t really reflect what really happens.

The last scan is just a nice picture of your brain, and this is fun because I can show you your own brain, although you may have already had this at Imperial?

Robin – Yeah, but I like looking at it again, it’s great! It’s fascinating.

Joseph – The scanner does this weird thing where it does this reconstruction in 3D,so if you’re ever curious what your head would look like carved out of wood…it doesn’t see hair by the way. This is it, you can see your brain.

Robin – Wow, that’s fantastic. See, I haven’t seen one like that before.

Joseph – Yeah, this is fun, you can even see things like the lenses of your eyes there, by the way. So, it’s great because you can see it all in situ.

Robin – Can I get hold of these things?

Joseph – Yeah we’ll email it to you.

Robin – That would be great, because at the moment I’ve got me, in profile, the journey through…but anything, even that, it’s fascinating. I remember, the first time I saw my brain, thinking, oh no, I’m not sure it’s quite wrinkly enough. And then I saw someone else’s brain and someone said, oh I wouldn’t worry about that because actually [you can have] too much of that and that can lead to conditions such as Asperger’s and autism and so I said that’s great, that’s about enough to comprehend the world you live in and continue to move through it.

Joseph – Absolutely.

Robin – I was told I had quite a big occipital lobe, apparently; I’ve been looking at too many things.

Joseph – Is that right?

Robin – That’s the one thing at Imperial, the…see, that [looking at screen] always fascinates me, I just find that such an incredible, beautiful piece of the…and then just to think about it, almost all that pseudoscience, there’s the reptile, there’s me somewhere there.

Joseph – Somewhere in here, that’s the idea, right.  Yeah, exactly, so that’s your spinal cord coming up into the brain stem which, as you say, is the reptilian part of the brain, it’s the part we share with crocodiles and fish and birds and whatnot, so evolutionarily the oldest.  Right behind that is the cerebellum, or the little brain; the cerebellum has just about as many brain cells as the rest of the whole brain.

Robin – It’s just remarkable.

Joseph – It’s incredible and it’s incredibly fine grained.

Robin – And its so delicate, it’s the delicacy, the fear of…when you see that and you think of the…I mean, what I find is most intriguing, or not most intriguing but…whenever you see a brain and the start of the preservation has already begun and there’s a solidity to it, and then when Im told its almost like butter…

Joseph – Yeah, I would’ve said Jell-O.

Robin – That’s really bizarre.

Joseph – Yeah, and that’s why we have this incredibly hard and thick skull around it, so the bone doesn’t show up on the MRI very well but there’s lots of soft tissue in here so there is a combination of scalp and what are called meninges, which are the protective material, and that stuff’s incredibly robust, I mean, the dura, which is the lining inside the skull, if you had to cut through it like in an autopsy, it normally uses a saw, I mean, it’s really well protected.

On the other hand, if you slam your head hard enough, I mean, the inside is just like Jell-O, right, it bounces off the front and the back so if you’re in a car accident and hit the windshield, that’s what happens, you get this trauma just from shaking the inside, not necessarily a big hole like with a stroke – that would happen during a stroke – but it is incredibly soft and I’ve done animal necropsies and it’s just amazing just how fragile it is once you’re actually in there.

When we do postmortem things, we put it in a solution that hardens it all up so you can look at it without damaging it.

Robin – So when you doing a postmortem, before you’ve actually got to the brain, already you’ve changed the structure of it in terms to give it a solid…at death, how does the solidity change?

Joseph – It starts to liquify.

Robin – It starts to liquify? So what do you put in to make sure that when you do get to cutting in and you need to examine the brain, what is put into it to maintain solidity?

Joseph – So for animals, when we’re doing it in terms of neuroscience, before we sacrifice the animal, you infuse formaldehyde into their blood supply and that will get into the brain and make it solid but it will also kill the animal, so you’re going to sacrifice it before you cause it grief.

Robin – I’m glad you’re going do it as sacrifice, so you are still offering it to some of the gods of university.?

Joseph – Absolutely.

Robin – You know, these secular universities, they don’t do as much sacrificing as they used to.

Joseph – Not any more, right? But with humans that’s not an issue, you can take the brain out if you’re doing a post mortem and put it in a formaldehyde solution, it’s not as effective but at least the human dies first.

Robin – So when its being taken out ,what does it feel like?

Joseph – Blancmange.

Robin – So it does feel like blancmange.

Joseph – You have to be super careful that you don’t damage it in the process and of course its very easy to do that.  Neurosurgeons and forensic people are actually quite good at it; actually, the forensic people are probably the best people, the neurosurgeons want it to stay in, they want to cut it while you’re alive and keep you alive in a perfect world.

Robin – So in terms of what you’re finding out, I know this is quite an early stage of this piece of research, what are the expectations of the parts of the brain that become most active when artistically creating.

Joseph – Well, some of what we would expect is Broca’s area, which is a part of the brain that’s involved in just simply speaking. And then, even in counting, you would normally see Broca’s area relative to something that didn’t normally involve speaking.  But given that we’re using that as a baseline, we’re not sure whether we’ll see Broca’s area or not, it seems likely given that the amount of effort that goes into constructing a really sequenced and controlled structure of speech is much more than it would take to just produce simple counting.  So that’s one area where we would expect…we’d probably expect various areas that are involved in memory as you draw on experiences to put there, but also I would imagine for people like yourself who are very good at this, I would expect to see quite a lot of prefrontal cortex, so that’s involved in control.  So for normal speakers who haven’t got a whole lot of experience and normally can’t improv, the idea of trying to control what they’re saying is just so unusual and they actually fail at doing it for the most part. They just put in all the ums and ahs and repeats, they normally don’t deviate from the topic but they just can’t help repeating themselves, and hesitating to a fairly enormous extent. So when you’re doing it and you’re able to keep to the structure of the task you’re doing: two things, one, you’re keeping track of all of that information and keeping those task constraints and delivering it, but in addition you have a sense of theory of mind, you’re thinking about your audience, you’re delivering it in a way that the audience finds appealing and entertaining, that’s what being on the programme is.  If you could just do the task but were incredibly boring with it, they wouldn’t invite you back.

So there are two different things that you’re doing above and beyond some random college student who’s come in and asked to do the task and we expect to see different brain regions involved in that.  Now it could be that some it is just…you’re using the same regions that I would be doing if I was trying to do it but you’re using them in different ways, you’re up-regulating some areas, you’re down-regulating others, and that would suggest if that were the case that maybe you’ve got some sort of intrinsic ability that you probably have built on but you’re using the same systems everyone else would.

But there are other areas that you’re engaging that say maybe I’m not, or other typical college students aren’t, though, it suggests that maybe you’re bringing strategies into it, so independently of any intrinsic innate abilities that you have that perhaps led you to this professional career that you’re in, you’ve probably also developed all sorts of strategies to deal with situations that I haven’t and other people haven’t.  I mean, any time you interact with your audience, you’ve got to be able to deal with the kind of nuts things that come out and do it in a way that’s entertaining to your audience and acceptable within your show.  Some of that’s presumably strategic, right? I mean, you can tell me, but from my outside perspective that seems like the most likely scenario.

Robin – Well, I find the change in the way that you structure something when you go on and you have a brand new load of ideas for a show, and then…what I find most tedious is that when you first go on you’ve got a load of notes and ideas are flying at incredible speed and you don’t know when each one of those things that went up there; I didn’t try and start thinking when it got to five seconds, when it got to zero, I just started talking and see what happens and you’re just doing lots of association and there’s no kind of…you know, you’re conscious of talking but you’re not conscious of where these things are coming from, in the same way as most conversations, we’re not.

But once you’ve got ideas that are working for shows, it’s much harder to rework the idea totally, so you can keep adding bits to a routine but you go, I needed a joke on this particular idea and I found it and now finding a second, finding a new way of doing this routine is much harder and you go, how is it that in the space of a week you can have creativity to perhaps create a 90 minute show and then that show stops being creative, you keep changing it and improvising but it’s still pretty solid and that…I find that bit where the brain goes, fine, you’ve got some stuff now.

In improvised stuff where sometimes if I do shows…and with a friend of mine we do shows and sometimes people will shout out – we do a thing called Pointless Anger and Righteous Ire, they have to say what they’re angry about and we will decide whether that is pointless anger or righteous ire, and the worst thing that anyone can shout is an idea that you’ve got a routine about because both of us don’t like the idea of going, brilliant, now we can do that five minutes. You have to find a new way of dealing with something that already you’ve come up with, and that I find interesting because it’s much harder, because when you’re coming up with ideas in terms of writing, you always know the first idea is probably the idea the majority of people have had, so you have to work two further ideas along.  You know, if you’re given a specific topic, you know, topical comedy, that’s why sometimes when people watch this show they go, I came up with that idea, they must’ve nicked it off me, and they go, no, no, everyone had that idea, that’s the first idea when that happens.

But, yeah, Im intrigued just by…and of that taxi driver hippocampus thing that always gets talked about.

Joseph – Exactly.

Robin – And you think what part of the frontal lobe etc. when you exercise it every single night, because some comics…I mean, it would be interesting to know the difference say between comics who are more comfortable doing the same routine every single night; some people, once they’ve got their hour or their twenty minutes they stick to that, there’s very little deviation.

Joseph – OK.

Robin – Other comics are always waiting to change it every single night and always looking for the new way so they don’t bore themselves, and maybe there’s someone in the audience who’s seen it before so you’d never want to create the same show and how that changes in terms of structure and activity.

Joseph – Sure, I mean it’s interesting because we didn’t think to specifically look for structure, we never thought we’d get enough professional comedians, frankly, but the reality is that it’s possible now, depending on how many people come, and we have an enormous collection of college aged normal non-comedians, you know, to compare it against and those structural studies, like the taxi driver study that you mentioned, typically you take a set of taxi drivers and then you compare them to a fairly large sample of the rest of the population of four or five hundred people.  We have on the order of 6,000 scans at this point from this scanner, so we could easily look for structural changes in addition because it wasn’t something that we really thought about to begin with but the reality is, you’re right, we have the data, there’s no reason why we don’t look.  That would be fantastic, it would be great to see the brain muscle that’s worked hard by your creativity.  Also, I can send you more on this if you’d like, we’ll send it to you electronically along with a free piece of software for viewing it and you can look around.

You get the whole thing in 3D, theres always fun bits, I enjoy the fact that you can see the lenses of the eyes so well.  I don’t know if you can see it as well but right on the back here there’s a thin grey line, that’s your retina.  So, you know when you go to the eye doctor and they take a picture of your retina, it ends up being this big on the screen but of course this is this tiny little thing.  And this is your optic nerve coming in here and if we stick looking at this one you can see the optic comes together, runs together like a little x, and half of the visual field shoots off to one side of your brain, half shoots off to the other, that’s always something that’s incredibly clear from these scans.

Robin – See, I love all that stuff about the…somebody will say, the left hemisphere, that’s where if you want to say where your “soul” is, and I say that with enormous inverted commas around that, that’s in the left hemisphere, and then I talk to other people who go, well, even though the right hemisphere doesn’t seem to be communicating and this seems to be where our conscious is, I’m intrigued by all those experiments, the Roger Sperry stuff.

Joseph – The split brain patients are amazing.  I mean, I fall pretty thoroughly on the atheist side of things, so I’d say your soul is in church!

Robin – I suppose what they’re really…whether the “youness” of you is in the left [hemisphere]; some documents I’ve read, they really go with the left hemisphere, that’s where you are, the right hemisphere is doing a lot of stuff and it’s obviously being a very active part of the brain but you…and the other people go, well, the trouble is, it’s like when they did those Carmelite nun experiments where they stuck them in an MRI and they had to think of the most goddy thing, all that stuff, you know, we’re gonna find the god spot, oh shit, there’s load of different bits here.

Joseph – Yeah, tricky. The other thing that comes up, as you mentioned the occipital lobe, so there are these patients who have damage to their occipital lobe who lose the conscious ability to see but they can still see, have you run across this?

RRobin – Blindsight?

Joseph – Brilliant.

Robin – That is…but that’s what gets me every time, do we even need to be self conscious?

Joseph – Right.

Robin – It’s one of the hardest ideas, isn’t it, to go that the idea that…I suppose blind sight, what we’re seeing there is, so that’s part of the brain that evolved before self consciousness, or we’re seeing the equivalent.

Joseph – How would you know, right?

Robin – That idea of not being aware, of having no idea, and of course this is going on all the time anyway in our brain, there’s loads of stuff going on.

Joseph – Sure, all the time.

Robin – But that…who was the first person who was dealing with blindsight?

Joseph – Larry Weiskrantz at Oxford is the guy who’s famous for it, and the hysterical part…I was at Oxford for a few years and some of my colleagues there were graduate students when Larry was doing it and they were very funny about the whole thing, they said, we all knew he was nuts, we all knew he was so obviously wrong that it was kind of sad and for ten years Larry had trouble getting it even published and at the end of those ten years he had accumulated so much data that he wrote a book that completely changed everybody’s thinking, and my colleague, who’s now one of the fellows at the Royal Society, said it was superb because it made me realise, you don’t know, the reason that you do the science is because you don’t know, you’ve got to actually check but you were right, I mean, for years and years people thought Larry was just cracked when in fact he was just brilliant and saw something that the rest of us weren’t seeing.

Robin – It’s the horror, isn’t it, I was thinking about the Libet experiments when we were in there as well: will we discover that there’s no free will in the stuff that I’m saying, and then you do get caught up with going, well, you’re not conscious a lot of the time apart from when you’re doing an anecdote you’ve done lots of times before, as each word comes out, there is no sense of conscious thought that has led to that sentence, it is just the barrage and the structure that occurs and all of that, and then sometimes I stop and think I have no idea where that…like that moment where you…I don’t normally laugh at what I say on stage, I’m not that kind of comic, but every now and again an idea comes out and you had no idea and it’s a really good one and you think you’ve really taken yourself by surprise, and every now and again something comes out, I think, no idea where that comes from, but sometimes…like lying in there, at times I noticed that a lot of the springboards into the ideas are things that I’ve read recently or that it’s experience or that you’re picking what’s been hovering around for a while, and then some things seem to come from nowhere, and sometimes you think what would Freud make of some of these associations.

Joseph – If you were only on a sofa. No, I think it’s true, if you start thinking about the mechanics of which word comes next you immediately start to lose all sense of fluency, you know, and I think that that’s true for sportspeople and musicians, they don’t think about how to hit this tennis shot: Andy Murray isn’t thinking, I need to switch my grip here, a musician isn’t thinking, 3rd, 4th, it just doesn’t happen.  Part of that fluency is how much you sublimate all of those processes and you’re really focusing on the creativity and the interaction with your audience, is this being received well, am I on a track that’s working, am I happy with this track, is it going to lead me to some place where I’m going to be completely stuffed and I have nowhere to go from there.  You’re thinking on a totally different plane, you’re not worried about the way you saw the words and how they come out that much because you know the audience is going to be incredibly forgiving with that, it’s only when you’re forced into a kind of Just a Minute kind of situation where you also have to do an incredible amount of self-monitoring of things like repetition or any kind of hesitation that normally would be totally acceptable in speech.

Robin – Because there is a moment with me, I find, when I do the actual show, the tripping over moment is I’m aware a tiny moment before that word comes out that I’ve fucked up and I’m aware though too late to stop it, it’s forming, it’s coming out, I’m trying to…argh…and, you know, that will happen, and sometimes before I’ve even done the repetition in fact I’m, argh, and hesitation it becomes because…

Joseph – Because you’ve seen that that’s what’s going to happen even before the rest of the people on the panel can hear it or Nicholas Parsons or anybody, right,  you know it’s just about to come out of your mouth and that’s one of the interesting things about the Libet kind of experiments is this sense of free will, well, you do have this sense of internal monitoring before they’ve happened and that’s of course because they’re being planned  in your brain before you actually produce them, it takes two milliseconds to get these things out in the world but, you know, before you’ve actually bothered to programme the motor muscles to actually do it, because it’s part of being fluent, you have to know in order to speak clearly. It’s just a fascinating topic and I think that, for me, one of the reasons I’m excited about this project versus a lot of the other things that people do in the field is we often focus on what goes wrong, somebody’s got a stroke or somebody’s got Alzheimer’s or someone’s child has dyslexia and that’s super valuable and I think it’s important.  We very rarely focus on what’s right, in people who do a particularly good job in things, that level of expertise, be it fluency or creativity or whatnot, particularly in an area that we can all do.  So I’m not a good tennis player, I’m never going to play like Andy Murray, I don’t really need to, that’s not that interesting to me, but I’ve been speaking my whole life and I consider myself not bad at it, but nonetheless I still have friends who are considerably more fluent than I am and I can go to comedy shows or listen to the radio and think, wow, it’s impressive that a person is able to deliver that at that level and I wish I could do that.  You know, I consider myself an expert speaker but I recognise that there’s a whole other level beyond what I can do and I think that that’s the kind of thing that may help appeal to an audience in this case because they’re going to be able to recognise it, why can’t I do this?

Robin – You should lend some of this when we do…when you’ve finished it all we should…when I do one of my shows at the Bloomsbury, we’ll get Sophie Scott and I’ll get a load of those comics on to do stuff because I think it’s…I mean, I find it interesting because the advantages that allow me to do what I do are also all the reasons I can’t do sport, I can’t dance, because I’m very self aware and very self conscious but not so self conscious that I can’t blether on, I can do words and I can do pratfalls but I can’t do sport, throwing a ball, I can feel my arm, dancing, I’m aware of my legs.