3 Improvisational Games to Boost Creativity

If you were to pick a team to design your next product, who would you choose – a team of professional product designers or a group of improvisational comedians? If you took the first option, you might want to think again. Barry Kudrowitz, an assistant professor and director of product design at University of Minnesota, conducted this exact experiment as part of his Ph.D. thesis at MIT.

In his study of 84 participants, he found that improvisational comedians produce 20% more product ideas and 25% more creative ideas than professional product designers. He also found that improvisational training can increase idea output for subsequent product brainstorming. While this sounds improbable, it makes sense when you consider that both creative thinking and improvisation rely on making non-obvious connections between unrelated concepts. As Barry explains, The more I looked at humor studies, I found a lot more connections between what makes something funny and what makes something innovative.

One of the fundamental tenets of improvisation is the concept of “Yes-And”, or the idea that you never contradict your partner and instead build on what he or she just said. For example, suppose someone says, “It’s so cold in here,” and you respond with “Seems fine to me…”, the scene starts to stall. If instead you said, “I told you it wasn’t a good idea to hide in the refrigerator,” you could start to build an interesting scene. At a fundamental level, “Yes-And” is all about forcing yourself to find interesting connections, or building associative thinking, a core creativity technique.

In our creativity and invention classes, we routinely use improvisational games as warm-up exercises to get creative juices flowing. Here are three of our favorite improv games that are not only fun, but they also build specific creative thinking patterns.

What Are You Doing?

This is an improv game that that engages both the critical and creative sides of the brain and builds associative thinking. Two people are invited onstage and given two letters of the alphabet (e.g. A and B). One player asks the other, “What are you doing?” and other player answers with an action phrase like “Arguing Baskets” and proceeds to act it out no matter how silly it appears. Then the players trade places and repeat the game.

Minion Game

This game is based on the Alternate Uses Task and is played in small groups. The group is given a simple object (like a pencil) and everyone in the group pretends to be minions who have just come across this human object. They take turns interpreting how that object might be used by humans. The trick is to not suggest a way that it is already used, like in this case for writing but for something completely different like using it as chopsticks.


This is a fun game that builds ability to reverse direction and view things from a different perspective. This game can be played by the whole group at the same time, and everyone takes turns telling the good news and bad news in a story. The first person is given a prompt (e.g “I took out the assignment from my bag”) and he has to say a sentence that begins with the word “Fortunately” (e.g. “Fortunately, it was a very simple assignment”). The next person has to come up with the bad news and start the sentence with “Unfortunately” (e.g. “Unfortunately, it had been due the last week”) and so on.

So the next time you are running out of steam in a brainstorming session, take a break and try an improvisation game or two!


Can Creativity Show the Flynn Effect?

In the 1920s, Alexander Luria, a Russian psychologist, interviewed a group of rural Russians who had been untouched with the scientific advancement of the 20th century. His goal was to understand the influence of social environment on cognitive development. What kind of thought patterns would dominate in societies where life revolved around handling tangible objects, as opposed to technical societies that induce more abstract reasoning?

A sample interview (see picture above) shows the questions and responses to a logical syllogism, posed to a rural adult. Nowadays, these kinds of deductive reasoning puzzles can be easily answered by a typical 7-8 yr old. But based on the response, it is clear that abstract, hypothetical reasoning is an alien concept to the interviewee. As Prof. James Flynn points out, “Today, we are accustomed to detaching logic from the concrete, and say “of course there would be no camels in this hypothetical German city.” The person whose life is grounded in concrete reality rather than in a world of symbols is baffled.

The Flynn Effect, which was first documented by Prof. Flynn, is the observation that IQ has been rising steadily from one generation to the next over the last century. The reason fueling this phenomenon has been a matter of debate. While Flynn initially attributed the rise in IQ to improved nutrition, affluence and other factors, in his recent book, “Are We Getting Smarter?”, he proposes a new theory.

He now believes that the Industrial Revolution and its subsequent social changes led to the rising IQ trend. He explains in the book, “The ultimate cause of IQ gains is the Industrial Revolution. The intermediate causes are probably its social consequences, such as more formal schooling, more cognitively demanding jobs, cognitively challenging leisure, a better ratio of adults to children, richer interaction between parent and child.

At the same time that IQ scores have been rising, another set of scores have been changing – in the opposite direction, unfortunately. Prof. Kyung Hee Kim, has been studying Creativity and its trends for several years. In a meta-analysis of creativity scores since the 1990s, Kim found that Creativity scores have been declining over the last two decades. The decline in creative thinking has affected Americans of all ages, but is especially pronounced for elementary age kids. Our focus on logical and analytical thinking certainly helped raise IQ scores, but it might have come at the expense of other thinking patterns. 

In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink outlines why the 21st century will be the “Conceptual Age”, dominated by creators and empathizers. He uses three prevailing trends – Abundance (most things are not scarce anymore), Asia (work that can be outsourced, is) and Automation (linear, logical work is increasingly being handled by automation) – to make his argument that non-linear and creative thinking will become essential in the 21st century.

So, this brings us to an interesting state. On the one hand, the 21st century will place more demands on creative thinking, and on the other hand, creativity is currently on the decline. Would the cognitive demands of the Conceptual Age spur a trend of rising Creativity?

An optimistic view would be that just like Industrial Age triggered a rise in IQ, the new Conceptual age will set off a rise in creative thinking. However, the current declining trend of Creativity, should give reason to pause. Maybe the transition towards more creative work will be more challenging, than the adaptation to the industrial and scientific age.   

To address the declining creativity, Prof. Kim says, “Reversing the trend will be a process that will require patience and perseverance, because the results will not be immediate.” We will eventually find out the answer to our question, but in the meantime we can all start taking steps to influence the outcome.



Thinking Outside The (Zwicky) Box

Fritz Zwicky, the renowned Swiss astronomer who first inferred the existence of dark matter, was well known as an original thinker who made significant contributions in many areas of astronomy. In a profile of Zwicky, aptly called Idea Man, Stephen Maurer notes, “When Fritz Zwicky died in 1974, he was remembered as a gifted observational astronomer who had discovered more supernovae than everyone else in human history combined.” What made Zwicky so successful was that he came up with a large number of discoveries and inventions during his lifetime. 

In fact, Zwicky is reported to have said about himself, “I have a good idea every two years. Give me a topic, I will give you the idea!” Zwicky invented a technique called morphological analysis, which he credits for most of his insights. He believed his technique would allow anyone to think one hundred times more efficiently. While that might seem like hyperbole, many people have since then found the technique to be a useful brainstorming tool. 

While morphology had been in use in many fields of science, Zwicky extended it to include abstract concepts and ideas. Morphological analysis works by first identifying the important dimensions of the problem, which make up the variables or parameters of the model. A Zwicky Box is then constructed where each of the parameter is placed in its own column. Different values of a parameter go into separate rows for that column. Picking a cell from each column, results in picking a unique solution to the problem. By trying out different combination of cells from the table, you can quickly and systematically explore many different solutions.

Today, a Zwicky box remains a great tool that helps in coming up with several original ideas. The Idea Box technique, outlined in Thinkertoys, and used for quickly producing thousands of new design ideas is based on the same morphological technique. Zwicky Boxes have also been used for business modeling, product design and even story planning.

As an example, suppose you want to apply the morphological technique to storywriting. You can pick a few important dimensions like “Conflict”, “Setting” and “Characters” for your Zwicky Box, each of which makes a column in the table. Then, you write down all the ideas you have for each of the columns. Now, by simply picking an entry from each column, you have the raw ingredients for your original story.

In our Creative Thinking classes, we often use Zwicky Boxes to capture and explore different ideas or to create some original story lines. We found that merely juxtaposing different elements from the table triggers the brain’s associative thinking engine to find meaningful connections, which often results in some fresh ideas.

The advantage of a Zwicky Box isn’t in building the ability to think original ideas, but in systematically exploring many ideas that can lead to surprising insights. Often times the problem isn’t necessarily coming up with ideas, it’s closing in too early on a few solutions.

The History Behind Words

In the Greek mythological tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, Theseus sets off to battle the Minotaur, a half-man half-bull creature, who lives in the heart of the Labyrinth. As if fighting the Minotaur wasn’t a challenge in itself, Theseus’s problem is compounded by the fact that no one had ever gotten out alive from the confusing Labyrinth. To help him survive, Ariadne, Minotaur’s half sister, gives him a ball of yarn. Theseus ties one end of the yarn to the entrance of the Labyrinth, gets to the center of the Labyrinth, kills Minotaur, and uses the yarn to find his way back.

The origin of the modern-day word “clue” comes from the Greek word “clew”, which means a ball of yarn. Once you know the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, the meaning of the word “clue” becomes more or less  obvious.

Etymology, or the study of the origin of words, is a fascinating field that illuminates the meaning words through the historical stories behind it. Given that English is a potpourri of many Latin, Romance or Germanic words, an etymological analysis often helps understand the ideas behind the words and their spelling patterns. Various studies have shown that students who study English as a Foreign Language (EFL) often retain vocabulary better when it is enhanced with etymological details.

One such study found that when faced with unfamiliar idioms, students were able to use etymological information in figuring out the meaning of the idioms. The authors believe that this problem solving activity also enhances the mnemonic effect, which in turn helps with better retention. In another study, researchers found that participants who received etymological elaboration performed better in learning than the participants who just relied on rote memorization.

Word ORIGINals is a new MindAntix brainteaser that combines etymology, creativity and the mnemonic effect to aid vocabulary building. Not only does each brainteaser give the etymological information for a word, it also allows you to create your own story of how you think the word came into existence. By making your own story, you create your own memory tool rich with images and meanings that can help you remember better.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The etymologist finds the deadest words to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.” But you don’t have to just stop at discovering the picture, you can also add your own dash of color to it!

Learning Through Mnemonics

On a visit to the Ryoyo Institute in Japan, a school that used experimental techniques to aid learning, Kenneth Higbee and his colleagues were quite impressed with what they saw. A group of kindergarteners were solving, not single digit addition problems, but quadratic equations of the form ax2 + bx + c = 0, a task that most adults find challenging!

The children were using the Yodai technique, a form of mnemonics created by Masachika Nakane, a teacher and principal at the Ryoyo Institute. Yodai, which means the “essence of structure”, uses rhymes, songs, stories and visual imagery to learn and remember the orderly steps in solving problems.   

In this particular case, the children remember the formula for solving the equation by a mnemonic called the “flute song”. Each syllable of the song corresponds to a component of the formula (see picture above). As Emmanuel Manalo explains, “The song goes as follows: fu-e-no (“flute’s”), hi-bi-ki (“sound”), wa (topic marker which means “as for the previous”, mi-mi (“ear”), hi (which means to hold the previous sound when singing), yo-a-shi (“good”). In English, the song means “As for the flute’s sound, it is good to the ear.”

While mnemonics don’t help in understanding the subject matter, they are a helpful aide in mastering a subject. Sometimes knowing the “how” can be a stepping stone to understanding the “why”. Scruggs and Mastropieri, advocates of using Mnemonic Instruction in classrooms, found thatstudents with special needs performed substantially better on content that had been instructed mnemonically (36.7% vs. 75% correct).

Mnemonics fall into two categories – fact mnemonics (used for remembering facts and also the more commonly known form) and process mnemonics (used for remembering rules and procedures).

Fact mnemonics include techniques like

  • Keyword Method – The Keyword method is a useful tool to remember new vocabulary words. For example, to help remember a new word “barrister”, you can imagine a bear (keyword) acting like a lawyer.
  • Pegword Method – Pegwords are rhyming proxies for numbers like one is bun, two is shoe and are useful for remembering numbered or ordered information. For example, a jury of elves (“elf” being a pegword for twelve) can help students remember that juries have 12 members.
  • Letter Strategies – These include acronyms and acrostics and are useful for remembering lists. For example, “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nachos” to remember the order of planets in the solar system.

Process mnemonics, on the other hand, help in remembering rules or procedures like the Yodai mnemonics. An example of a process mnemonic that helps to remembering the ordering of i’s and e’s  is “an i before an e, except after c or when sounded like an a as in neighbor and weigh”.  

The mNEWmonics category of MindAntix brainteaser adds a creative twist to the process of learning. The goal is to come up with a new mnemonic to help memorize a fact or a concept – either a new version of an existing mnemonic or a completely new one. 

There are advantages to making your own mnemonic.  When you create your own mnemonic, you create associations that work better for you, thereby building your own “memory tool”. Also, in the process of searching for a mnemonic, you end up revisiting the underlying content several times, further strengthening the connection.

So is there anything you wish you wouldn’t keep forgetting? Why not try making  a mnemonic  for it?