Organized Adult Play and Stress Reduction: Testing the Absorption Hypothesis in a Comedy Improv Theater

Published in: Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, Published online 18 September 2020

Can the stress relieving aspects of going to church be replaced by joining another type of group activity involving belief, training, and focus? A team led by Notre Dame anthropologist Cara Ocobock tested the “absorption hypothesis” in two comedy improv troupes at a theater in upstate New York.

Improv comedy requires a dedicated group of people who practice multiple times a week for performances and have the focus and fleetness of mind to riff together on themes that amuse and provoke live audiences. The study was inspired by Ocobock’s husband, a member of one of the troupes, and previous work by University of Alabama co-author Christopher Lynn. Lynn had studied Pentecostals congregations in upstate New York and found members with more experience speaking in tongues had generally lower stress.

The improv study is exploratory because they had a limited number of participants, but their goal was to combine Lynn’s previous approach with one taken from another anthropologist, Stanford’s Tanya Luhrmann, who has studied other Christian Charismatics (Charismatic religion refers to manifestations of “gifts” from God, such as speaking in tongues, which involves God speaking through a person). 

Luhrmann coined the “absorption hypothesis” in her work, suggesting that Charismatics who are most successful at talking with God share a belief that they can, practice or train to do so, and have a better than average ability to become psychologically absorbed in the process.

In non-religious behavior, group play behaviors are known to be highly absorptive as well, and have the potential to reduce distress and anxiety. As such, Ocobock and Lynn designed this study in collaboration with the improv players, many of whom believe improv practices help them alleviate anxiety in their daily lives. Study team members Mallika Sarma and Lee Gettler, also from Notre Dame, conducted the analysis of saliva samples collected in a rigorous protocol over performance, rehearsal, and non-improv days.

The amount of improv experience (though the range of experience was limited in this study) was not a factor, suggesting that comedy improv is not quite analogous to active church membership. However, improvisors may experience stress reduction associated with the absorption involved in adult play.

New grant!

I and my colleagues, Drs. Scott Maddux and Libby Cowgill, have just been awarded an NSF collaborative grant for our project “Experimental testing of thermoregulatory principles: Re-evaluating ecogeographic rules in living humans“.

We will be building a climate chamber down at UNTHSC over the next year, and then begin collecting data. Below is the public abstract for our project.

Human anatomy varies widely around the world but claims that certain physical features are beneficial in particular climates have rarely been experimentally tested. This research will evaluate how differences in head, trunk, and limb anatomy influence the ability of human subjects to regulate their internal body temperature when exposed to different climatic conditions in an environmental test chamber. This collaborative project will thus experimentally test long-held assumptions regarding climatic patterning of human body form. The investigators will share the results of this project through academic publications, STEM outreach activities, public talks, and interviews on a nationally recognized podcast. Graduate, undergraduate, and medical students will be trained in data collection and analysis through participation in this research, and field trip demonstrations of the project equipment and methods will be used to expose economically disadvantaged Texas high school students to potential careers in science and medicine. This project will also produce high-quality, whole body CT scans which will be made readily available to other researchers through an online data archive. Finally, this research will shed light on issues important to both the broader scientific community and the general public, including the significance of human biological diversity and the potential implications of global climate change.

This research will experimentally test proposed relationships between thermoregulatory benefits and environmentally-patterned variation in human anatomy. While climatic pressures are widely cited as contributing to global variation in human head shape, torso dimensions, limb proportions, and overall body size, specific links between physical features and body function in different climatic conditions have not been experimentally established. Furthermore, studies of adaptation to climate have historically focused on separate regions of the body (e.g. braincase, nose, torso, upper limb, lower limb), with minimal attention to how these different anatomical structures interact with one another to function as a whole. To remedy this, the research uses state-of-the-art technologies, including computed tomography imaging and an environmental chamber, to measure the physiological responses of physically diverse living participants exposed to controlled environmental conditions simulating three global climate extremes (hot-dry, hot-humid, cold-dry). Validation of proposed thermoregulatory benefits of specific body forms is essential for guiding future research on climatic adaptation. Further, by employing a
whole-body approach, this study will clarify the role of different anatomical regions in overall thermoregulatory function. In sum, this study will explicitly link hard and soft tissue morphology to physiological outcomes, permitting more confident assessment of climatic adaptation in both modern populations and the fossil record.

Science communication in a time of massive misinformation

We are losing ground to misinformation, and the only way to gain it back is to drown out the noise with a flood of clear, concise, accurate, and accessible messaging from scientists.
As such, Christopher Dana Lynn and I wrote a commentary for the AJHB COVID-19 special issue about the importance of effective science communication.
Here is the infographic that sums up what we wrote.
You can also read a previous post of mine about spotting misinformation here.

Resting Metabolic Rates Among Reindeer Herders in Finland

The first of many papers on my work in Finland just hit early view. This is the result of a wonderful collaboration with Dr. Minna Turunen and Dr. Päivi Soppela from the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland as well as Ville Stenbäck and Dr. Karl-Heinz Herzig from the University of Oulu.

I was fortunate enough to spend May 2018, part of October 2018, and all of January 2019 in Rovaniemi, Finland in order to better understand the metabolic cost of inhabiting a cold climate among reindeer herders. You can read more about the whole project here.

Moomin snow sculpture in the center of Rovaniemi.

This paper discusses the fascinating results of the resting metabolic rate measurements we conducted. You can access the abstract of the paper here (contact me for a pdf!) or you can have a look at the infographic I made that sums up the study and results – Herder RMR Infographic.

I must say that I prefer the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter rather than the dead of summer. Yeah, you only get a few hours of dusk and it is so cold that your breath freezes on your eye lashes and you feel your frozen snot crackle with each inhalation. But, it is breathtakingly beautiful and serene.

Frozen fog on trees

My breath frozen on my eye lashes.









This project and collaboration has been an absolute joy, and I am beyond excited that the work is coming out. I also look forward to more papers in the future and the expansion of this project.

Human Energy Expenditure in Anthropology and Beyond

Whew! This paper has been a long time coming! Through a series of unfortunate events, it took almost two years for this to go from submitted to published.

This paper covers the current state of human energetics research within anthropology, discusses a couple of new theories in the field, and then provides a bit of a road map for future work.

I wrote this manuscript over the summer of 2018, which was likely one of the best summers I had. I conducted preliminary field work in Finland during May, and then June-August was devoted to writing and weightlifting…though not always in the order. You can read about the weightlifting here.

IT WAS AMAZING! It was one of those times where I felt like I really had the time to think, read, and write without interruption. I was able to truly engage with this manuscript and enjoy the process. It reminded me of writing my dissertation – the last time I was able to focus on just one thing.

However, the smooth sailing ended there. This is a review article, so when I went to submit it, I selected “Review” under article category. What I didn’t know was that meant Book Review and not Review Article, stupid error on my part. I didn’t realize the problem until Adam Van Arsdale asked me how the article was coming…almost six months after I submitted it. We quickly figured out the issue and I resubmitted the article under the proper category. Three months after submission, I still hadn’t heard anything and decided to contact Adam. Turns out there was some glitch and the submission never actually made it to the editor – no idea why. And, so, I submitted it a third time!

At this point, I was convinced this was a cursed article never to be reviewed much less accepted. However, in early April the reviews finally came in, but I had just accepted a new position at Notre Dame and was dealing with selling one house, buying another, and moving from New York to Indiana. I requested and was granted an extension on the reviews, and I resubmitted in September, and the paper was accepted in October. Then from October through to do was the page proofs and waiting.

I must say, though, the reviewer comments were some of the best and most constructive I have ever had. It was how the review process should work, everything the reviewers said was incredibly helpful, insightful, and supportive. Their comments pushed me to think about things in ways I had not before, and I am incredibly grateful to them. I also took this to heart and make sure that I take a similar approach when reviewing articles.

It was a long road to publication, but I am proud of this one.

How the Sausage of Science is Made

Sausage of Science LogoChris Lynn and I recently wrote an article for Practicing Anthropology discussing the how and why we podcast for the Human Biology Association. The short and sweet answer is that it is a labor of love. We love what we do and all the amazing people we get to interact with, and we want to share that through the Sausage of Science.

This article also provides a brief road map of how to go about making your own podcast if you are interested. Here is the link the article abstract, feel free to contact me for a pdf. Also, here is a link to the blog post Chris wrote about the article!


BabiesMany years ago (when I was a graduate student), I played a super minor role in some research looking at the developmental timing of gait in children. This was done in Herman Pontzer‘s lab back when he was at WashU and in collaboration with Libby Cowgill and Anna Warrener. A publication came out of it, which was great as a grad student, but it was never work I thought much about once it was done.

Fast forward about 9 years when Libby calls me while I am at a train station getting ready to head to New York City, and says she was contacted by a Netflix producer who wants us to recreate the data collection for a documentary on babies (documentary is also called Babies), and Libby wants me to come out and help.

I was pretty reluctant to agree for a few reasons:

  1. This was a traumatic data collection for me. Getting screaming toddlers to walk across a force plate was the worst, and I didn’t particularly want to relive it. I do not have the temperament to work with kids, and I felt horrible during every moment of that data collection.
  2. The filming was immediately coming off the heels of my on campus interview at the University of Notre Dame, and I was going to be stressed an exhausted.
  3. I had no desire to be on camera for the world to see – especially if I was to be recreating a data collection I hated.

However, Libby said she didn’t want to do it without me, and I adore Libby. Also, how often does the chance come along to be in a Netflix documentary?!?!

Despite the stress and exhaustion of an on campus interview followed by delayed and cancelled flights, I made it out to Columbia, MO just in time for filming. It was a process unlike anything I have ever seen or done before. We had to repeat the same scenes over and over again all while trying to act natural. It can be a frustrating process. Fortunately, all the kids were great and happy to participate. Some of the footage was just fantastic. the best part may have been joking around with the sound guy. He had us mic’ed up the whole time and could hear (and regularly reacted to) the snarky comments Libby and I would make during this process.

This was an opportunity I never saw happening for me, and I was reluctant at first, but I am really glad I did it. It was such a unique experience to see how days of filming gets cut up into a 10 minute segment. It also brought about some wonderful connections with folks for potential future projects, so well worth it!

Here is the trailer for the documentary. The series comes out on Feb. 21.

Ocobock deadlifting

What you won’t see it in the documentary is where they have Libby and I lifting together in a gym. The director told me to deadlift and keep deadlifting until the long, moving shot was done. I was pulling 225lbs, and lost count after the 12th rep. I believe once the shot was done, I fell to the floor exhaling a long string of curses. This shot never made it past the cutting room floor…so, here is a picture of me deadlifting 135lbs for my biomechanics class last year.

Science on Tap: effective public engagement or preaching to the choir?

Science on Tap CapSci LogoAs many of you know I expend a lot of time doing and thinking about science communication and outreach. I founded a Science on Tap series in Grand Rapids, MI when I had my first faculty position at Grand Valley State University. I remember the first event – only 12 people showed up. It took time, but the audience grew with every event. My final Science on Tap before moving to a new position in Albany, NY, drew a crowd of over 300 people. We had to turn people away at the door…for a science event…in a local pub! Granted, I had brought in the county medical examiner – turns out people really love hearing how other people die.

As this event grew, so too did my suspicions that Science on Tap was not reaching the audience I hoped it would reach – an audience that was mistrusting in science. I had always envisioned this event as a mechanism to change the hearts and minds of a doubting public.

When I moved to Albany, NY, I founded a Science on Tap series there as well. I hadn’t initially planned on it, but the 2016 election put into sharp focus that we need more outreach, not less. That series eventually merged with the March for Science effort to form a nonprofit organization – CapSci. Despite great support and very large audiences, I still had my concerns about who that audience was and if I was really achieving the goal of improving trust in science and scientists.

That February, I attended the SEEPS meeting where I presented on my outreach efforts, and serendipitously met Pat Hawley. I told her about Science on Tap, and that I suspected it was just preaching to the choir. “Let’s find out!” she exclaimed. And, so began a wonderful collaboration. Pat has done lots of work on science education and educational psychology. She designed a survey that looked at demographics, religious affiliation, political affiliation, trust in science, and level of scientific knowledge and I implemented the data collection. We collected data from 10 different Science on Tap events that covered a range of topics from climate change to dark matter. We wanted to know who was attending these events and how event attendance impacted trust in and knowledge of science.

That publication just came out!

Here are the big take aways:

  1. My suspicions were confirmed! We are preaching to the choir – people who are already interested in and trust science attended
  2. We need to assess outreach efforts to determine if we are reaching our intended audience and our intended goal
  3. We need to work creatively to reach those who mistrust science because they are unlikely to attend events like Science on Tap
  4. Knowledge about the nature of science decreased after attending an event! That’s not good, but we think a part of that is how we as scientists explain (or don’t) uncertainty in our work. Uncertainty in everyday life is rarely a good thing, and people transfer those negative feelings when they hear about uncertainty in science

Recommendations based on this work:

  1. Embrace & explain uncertainty in science – we need to make clear that uncertainty is standard in our work, and it is what drives our questions and innovations
  2. Make personal connections…why science matters in ever day life. People will care about the science if they know how it affects them
  3. Hone communication skills…get rid of jargon – we need to be better at speaking to a wide range of audiences, not just our academic colleagues
  4. Know your audience & know your goal – and the best way to do this is to conduct similar types of assessment in your own outreach efforts