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A Tool for Understanding Humor and Empathy

If you were stuck on a desert island with only one other person, would you rather be on an island with someone who was far too serious and seemed to have no interest in or understanding of ‘you’, or would you rather be with someone who has an engaged interest in your shared fate and has some personality to help keep the boredom away? Many of us would probably choose the latter. Unless you tend towards the misanthropic, you would probably prefer to share the company of someone who is understanding and fun. Humor and empathy are two big facets of human life that bond us all, and the one requires the other to some degree.

It is nearly impossible to escape the gaffs of life, and experiencing these myriad failures gives one context to understand the experience of others undergoing similar circumstances. It is this same empathetic knowledge that allows us to see the idiosyncrasies of our experience through new eyes, and one of the things that emerge is laughter. Rooted in the rhythmic hooting of earlier primates, laughter can be considered something of an ancient inheritance. There is precedence for laughter among other species like rats. Our laughter, depending on how it is performed, connotes many things; joy, exasperation, derision, surprise, embarrassment. It is our ability to consider context and discern intention behind human actions that enables us to effectively understand which laugh is the one we’re hearing and seeing.

Improvised theater comes from this mix of humor and acting out a mosaic of real and imagined lives and locales through dialogue, body language, singing, and mime. It is fairly easy to take a class in improvisational theater, or ‘improv’ for short. People from many walks of life take a beginner’s class; high-school counselors, retirees, actors, writers, cooks, nurses, high schoolers, lawyers, etc. It is here that people get introduced to the driving ideas behind the mechanics of improvised theater. Much of early training is focused on understanding and internalizing the idea of “Yes, and”. In every book on improvised theater and its applications since Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away, there is a section devoted to understanding this idea. The notion of “yes and” is what can turn the desert island scenario from a negative experience to a positive one infused with active engagement rather than passive disengagement.

To take things a step deeper, there is recent research that suggests that we all have (to a greater or lesser degree) a neural system in place that functions as a means for learning and understanding human intention and human emotion. These networked brain cells are called “Mirror Neurons”. These are neurons that fire in the same way whether you are doing something or watching something being done. Basically what this research is suggesting is, if you raise your arm and I see it, my brain fires all of the same neurons that it would fire if I were raising my arm. The same follows for seeing emotions and body language.

Improvised theater (and the exercises used to teach it) is uniquely designed to enhance a person’s practice and understanding of human intention and emotion. Like all theater, students are coached to become more outwardly emotional in order to communicate a character’s inner life. To do this effectively, it takes a detailed understanding of human emotion and intention; and the performance skills to enact behavior that is appropriate or inappropriate depending on which avenue will help create a nice story with some entertainment value. One researcher of mirror neurons even suggested that actors are mirror neuron experts because of their ability to make people ‘feel’ simply through performance.

As opposed to scripted theater, improvised theater requires this seeing, understanding, responding process to happen in the present moment rather than over weeks of rehearsal and direction. It is the immediacy of this process that I think results in a sort of exercising and strengthening of the mirror neuron system that helps us connect to and understand our fellows. What we do with that knowledge and understanding is another matter. For improvisers, “yes, and..” is a way of saying ‘I understand what you have said or done, and what I say and do will add to the importance and effect of your words/actions’. The catch is that it is expressed through their performance. For our brains, “yes, and..” is the recognition of an action and its context, and from that we intuit intention and desire by overlaying our own map of experience over the viewed action. This process of affirming and embellishing the choices and ideas of our fellows is the engine that helps improvisers develop fun and engaging scenes from little to nothing. It is this idea that has a sort of transformative and uplifting effect on people who get involved in improvised theater, whether to become performers or just as an avenue for personal development.

Long form improvisation, a form that takes a few inputs in the beginning to develop an entirely improvised play, pushes things even further in the cognitive realm. Because long-form shows, like the Harold, commonly follow a structure similar to the phases of ritual (separation, transition, incorporation) they sometimes elicit a socio-emotional state of unity and one-mindedness amongst the performers. This cognitive state has been researched in other ritual settings, and they propose that in these states of heightened cognitive arousal the brain shifts into high gear. It goes from the two hemispheres firing alternately to the two sides firing simultaneously. This usually only happens in instances of orgasm, REM sleep, zen and yogic meditation and ecstasy states . This experience is the defining moment between a passive interest in improv to a dedication or addiction to the activity.This kind of state is what usually bounds our longest and most intimate friendships and relationships. Another scholar even proposes that this facet of homo sapien cognition and experience helped us survive the last ice age and was the foundation for religious thought.

Laughter, like yawns, is one of the most infectious behaviors in humans. Our ability to laugh appears in infants, and it is a signal of a normal and healthy developing brain. It is a sign that we can see beyond the surface of appearance and delve deeper into the tapestry of meaning by noting the idiosyncrasies of concepts and behavior. It is also a signal that we have developed a mode for judging meaning from context through measuring it against our experience. That very experience also connects us empathetically in real time to the experience of others; allowing us to viscerally experience the tragedies and triumphs of the people we observe in life, whether we know them or not. The training one receives in studying improvisation is generally a good exercise to help us strengthen and develop our ability to communicate, create, problem-solve, collaborate and imagine. These are the skills that need fostering in order to meet the challenges we face in the future.

(originally published in 2009 on teachstreet.com)

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One comment on “A Tool for Understanding Humor and Empathy

  1. I’ve not thought about training in improv as a means to increase our communication skills, but you’re right. As I said last time, I reckon old fashioned play is one of the answers. In that space, children are constantly involved in a similar level of problem solving and emotional communication, as improv, and therefore have greater levels of emotional intelligence than those who don’t. I think they’re less narcissistic too. And as an aside, I love watching improv – it’s a sure way to measure an actor’s true ability.

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