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Can Memorizing a Phone Number Make You Eat Cake?


By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation

“If we don’t regularly rest and refuel our brain, the quality of our reasoning, self-control, and planning declines sharply. And overexertion in one of the deliberate systems can deplete our abilities in other areas. For example, research has found that asking our deliberate system to remember a random seven-digit number makes it harder for it to muster the self-control necessary to resist a calorie-laden piece of cake.” Caroline Webb, How to Have a Good Day

My friend Linnea Gandhi set me up on a blind nerd-fest with one of her mentors, Caroline Webb. Caroline was in Chicago for an event for The Economist and we met for coffee before I headed out of town that afternoon. Caroline spent fifteen years at McKinsey and is an Oxford and and Cambridge-trained economist. Her company, Sevenshift, shows clients how to use behavioral science to boost their professional effectiveness.

We had a fantastic conversation and she’s going to be a guest on one of our upcoming “Getting to Yes, And” podcasts so we can dig further into the connections between improvisational practice and the various movements in behavioral science, neuroscience and positive psychology that provide a lot of hard data to go along with work that was traditional identified as soft skills.

Meanwhile, can we really blame memorizing a phone number on our inability to refuse sweets? We need to know more.

Caroline goes on, “If you tried to consciously process every single bit of data and assess every possible course of action in depth, you’re brain would crash like an overloaded computer.”

Once again, so much of this work is built around the ideas first offered by Daniel Kahneman in his seminal book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Caroline notes that in order to handle the overload that comes into the deliberate or slow part of our brain, our automatic system or fast part of the brain kicks into gear. She writes, “Broadly speaking, it takes shortcuts – rather like your computer flags incoming messages with large number of recipients as junk, for example, it hasn’t actually read them in depth; it just applies a rule of thumb based on the fact that group emails often are junk.”

But that also means that our brain isn’t always telling us the truth – as the fast part of our brain is still prone to things like confirmation bias and priming. As Caroline says, “As a result, the startling truth is that we don’t experience the world as it is; we’re always experience an edited simplified version.”

Alas, all is not lost. Once you understand that your brain can only handle so much information and that along with the ability to lighten the load, you will inevitably be subject to blind spots, you can create habits that help you navigate the terrain. As Caroline offers, “You make the most of your brain’s talents if you adjust for the limitation of each system. That means creating the conditions for your deliberate system to function at it’s best, and recognizing when to slow down and come off autopilot.”

Sounds a lot like what you do when you’re improvising; when you are practicing the flip between the deliberate and automatic parts of your brain (system one and system two).

Improvisation provides you actual practice in playing with the fast and slow parts of your brain in real time. The conditions and recognition that Caroline talks about are both in abundance when you improvise: a space that is shame-free and fear-free as well as a recognized agreement that behaviors of empathetic listening, agreement and support are needed to work fluidly through changes, mistakes and misunderstandings.

why improv


Charles Duhigg, Smarter, Faster, Better

Charles Duhigg, Smarter, Faster, Better

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