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Improv in a MRI – Pt 2

Earlier this year, 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.

The following transcript is of the discussion between Robin and Dr Joseph Devlin from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Do we even need to be self conscious?

Robin - 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?

Robin -  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.