Skip to main content

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



Cognitive scientists suggest that stress reduction may be one of the important elements for the success of religion as a social structure. Studies among Christian Charismatics support this model, pointing to the importance of belief, training, and proclivity for psychological absorption in maximizing the influence of cultural rituals for reducing stress and positively influencing mood. Furthermore, this “absorption hypothesis” likely extends to other cultural settings.


We test the role of absorption in influencing stress and emotional affect among members (N = 12) of a comedy improvisation (improv) theater in upstate New York. We tested for main and interaction effects of improv experience and absorption on self-reported mood and biomarkers of stress on improv and non-improv days.


We found a significant positive association between absorption and cortisol on improv days but no effects for improv experience and no significant interaction effects.


These findings suggest absorption may be important for focus in skilled adult play, but involvement in comedy improv may not be analogous to active church membership.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. Adam, E. K., Hawkley, L. C., Kudielka, B. M., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2006). Day-to-day dynamics of experience–cortisol associations in a population-based sample of older adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(45), 17058–17063.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Barrett, J. L. (2011). Cognitive science of religion: Looking back, looking forward. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50(2), 229–239.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Christiano, B. A., & Russ, S. W. (1996). Play as a predictor of coping and distress in children during invasive dental procedure. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 25(2), 130–138.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Cohen, S., & Williamson, G. M. (1988). Perceived stress in a probability sample of the United States. In S. Spacapan & S. Oskamp (Eds.), The social psychology of health (p. 31). Newbury Park: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Cohen, S., Kamarck, T., & Mermelstein, R. (1983). A global measure of perceived stress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 24(4), 385–396.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Dawson, J. F. (2014). Moderation in management research: What, why, when, and how. Journal of Business and Psychology, 29(1), 1–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Erickson, K., Drevets, W., & Schulkin, J. (2003). Glucocorticoid regulation of diverse cognitive functions in normal and pathological emotional states. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 27(3), 233–246.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Fries, E., Dettenborn, L., & Kirschbaum, C. (2009). The cortisol awakening response (CAR): Facts and future directions. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 72(1), 67–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Harris, P. L. (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Hellhammer, D. H., Wust, S., & Kudielka, B. M. (2009). Salivary cortisol as a biomarker in stress research. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34, 163–171.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Jamieson, G. (2005). The modified Tellegen absorption scale: A clearer window on the structure and meaning of absorption. Australian Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 33, 119.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Kaiser, B. N., Haroz, E. E., Kohrt, B. A., Bolton, P. A., Bass, J. K., & Hinton, D. E. (2015). “Thinking too much”: a systematic review of a common idiom of distress. Social Science & Medicine, 147, 170–183.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Kirschbaum, C., Pirke, K. m., & Hellhammer, D. H. (1995). Preliminary evidence for reduced cortisol responsivity to psychological stress in women using oral contraceptive medication. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 20(5), 509.–514.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Luhrmann, T. M. (2005). The art of hearing god: Absorption, dissociation, and contemporary American spirituality. Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, 5(2), 133.–157.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When god talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God. New York: Knopf.

  17. Luhrmann, T. M., Nusbaum, H., & Thisted, R. (2010). The absorption hypothesis: Learning to hear god in evangelical Christianity. American Anthropologist, 112(1), 66–78.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Lynn, C. D., Paris, J. J., Frye, C. A., & Schell, L. M. (2010). Salivary alpha-amylase and cortisol among Pentecostals on a worship and nonworship day. American Journal of Human Biology, 22(6), 819–822.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Lynn, C. D., Paris, J. J., Frye, C. A., & Schell, L. M. (2011). Glossolalia is associated with differences in biomarkers of stress and arousal among apostolic Pentecostals. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1(3), 173.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Lynn, C. D., Dominguez, J. T., & Decaro, J. A. (2016). Tattooing to "toughen up": Tattoo experience and secretory immunoglobulin a. American Journal of Human Biology, 28, 603–609.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Lynn, C. D., Howells, M., Herdrich, D., Ioane, J., Hudson, D., & Fitiao, S. T. U. (2019). The evolutionary adaptation of body art: Tattooing as costly honest signaling of enhanced immune response in American Samoa. American Journal of Human Biology, 32(4), 1–12.

  22. Miller, G. E., Chen, E., & Zhou, E. S. (2007). If it goes up, must it come down? Chronic stress and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis in humans. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 25–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Miller, G. E., Chen, E., & Cole, S. W. (2009). Health psychology: Developing biologically plausible models linking the social world and physical health. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 501–524.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Pellis, S., & Pellis, V. (2013). The playful brain: Venturing to the limits of neuroscience. London: Oneworld Publications.

  25. Pruessner, J. C., Wolf, O. T., Hellhammer, D. H., Buske-Kirschbaum, A., Von Auer, K., Jobst, S., et al. (1997). Free cortisol levels after awakening: a reliable biological marker for the assessment of adrenocortical activity. Life Sciences, 61(26), 2539–2549.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Pruessner, J. C., Kirschbaum, C., Meinlschmid, G., & Hellhammer, D. H. (2003). Two formulas for computation of the area under the curve represent measures of total hormone concentration versus time-dependent change. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 28(7), 916.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Seligman, R., & Kirmayer, L. J. (2008). Dissociative experience and cultural neuroscience: Narrative, metaphor and mechanism. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 32(1), 31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Smyth, J., Ockenfels, M. C., Porter, L., Kirschbaum, C., Hellhammer, D. H., & Stone, A. A. (1998). Stressors and mood measured on a momentary basis are associated with salivary cortisol secretion. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23(4), 353–370.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Stromberg, P. G. (2009). Caught in play.

  30. Tellegen, A., & Atkinson, G. (1974). Openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences ("absorption"), a trait related to hypnotic susceptibility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 83(3), 268.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Thompson, T., Steffert, T., Steed, A., & Gruzelier, J. (2010). A randomized controlled trial of the effects of hypnosis with 3-D virtual reality animation on tiredness, mood, and salivary cortisol. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 59(1), 122–142.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Wasson, S. (2017). Improv nation: How we made a great American art. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  33. Watson, D., & Clark, L. A. (1999). The PANAS-X: Manual for the positive and negative affect schedule-expanded form. University of Iowa, Iowa City. (Unpublished manuscript).

  34. WHO. (2020). Mental health. World Health Organization. Accessed 28 May 2020.

  35. Wüst, S., Wolf, J., Hellhammer, D. H., Federenko, I., Schommer, N., & Kirschbaum, C. (2000). The cortisol awakening response - normal values and confounds. Noise & Health, 2(7), 79–88.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Cara Ocobock.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All study participants provided informed consent, and all protocols were approved by the improv theatre and the University at Albany Institutional Review Board (17-E-281).

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ocobock, C., Lynn, C.D., Sarma, M. et al. Organized Adult Play and Stress Reduction: Testing the Absorption Hypothesis in a Comedy Improv Theater. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology 6, 436–446 (2020).

Download citation


  • Play
  • Absorption
  • Comedy improvisation (improv)
  • Mood
  • Cortisol