Cooperation precedes life

The existence of cooperating pairs of molecules in prelife is very plausible. Indeed, replication of a single strand of RNA can be thought of this way: one strand of RNA builds a complimentary strand, and so on. Thus cooperation is older than life itself.

Martin A. Nowak in his book Supercooperators.


We Can Be Heroes

In years past, a passage by Vicki Noble, a healer of sorts, really had struck a chord with me. It had to do with her approach to cancer. In the passage, she said that she didn’t focus so much on attacking the offending cells. Instead, her energies were trained on awakening, enlivening and empowering the healthy cells. She used this as a metaphor for engaging in the work of building peace in communities and the world at large.

This is something that comes to my mind a lot in the research and writing that I do. Of course, my lens makes me see improv as a hammer that can hit any social skill/social awareness nail. That aside, I’ve been considering what are the particular notions that we play with in improv that can really help enliven individuals to being more courageous and effective. That word “courageous” is what led me to think of heroes and heroism. There is a lot of great work out there on these subjects. Instantly, my mind goes to the great work of Joseph Campbell and all of the folks who have been inspired by and built on his work. I’m spending some time now becoming more familiar with his canon, but before I jumped into that, I wanted to experiment a little with the notion in a workshop.

Recently, I did a pro-bono workshop for the local Comedysportz cast focused on discovering what kind of hero people are and having them more fully engage in an active exploration of what that could mean for their lives. I based it on an anthropology article that I had blogged about before.

Part of the workshop involved people telling stories of heroic things that they’ve done in life; not so much as a chance to brag as much as a way to help them see their own potential for heroism. This had an interesting effect on many of the people in the workshop. One participant remarked that it was so different from general conversation in life for her because she rarely spoke of herself in terms of being heroic. She felt that it was rare in her circle that people would make such an accounting of their helpful or heroic deeds.

Another colleague of mine actually applies similar work through her job at FEMA. I had the pleasure of connecting with Mary Tyszkiewicz and got to see her speak about her own brainchild called Heroic Improvisation. Soon after her talk, she was hired on by FEMA to help realize some of their new goals of creating teams of volunteer first responders using these techniques.

Carlos-Arredondo-boston-marathon-hero-1My mind wanders on how to expand this work to bolster the ‘healthy cells’ that walk around us every day because I believe we could all use reminders that we are capable of being remarkable in terms of helping one another. This seems important when we appear to live in times where partisan tensions and income inequality reign supreme. In the wake of the tragedy of the Boston Marathon, it was heartening to see that most of the people that walk around us every day are primed to be heroes when circumstances call. My big hope is that those heroic qualities will filter up the chain of power in time to deal with the impending challenges of our new millennium.

A particular quote always crops up in my mind in regards to what I would consider true heroism in the human scheme. It was written by Shadi Fader in the “Fool” edition of the magazine Parabola (2001):

“A fool’s strength lies in the very qualities that separate him from the conventional image of the heroic: humility and the willingness to support others rather than seeking power or glory directly”

That quote was in reference to the journey of Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings. On that fictional journey, there was no promised reward, but it was undertaken all the same because the alternative was darkness and suffering. Our world could definitely be helped by asking that question more often: Will this result in more suffering for us all?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to the suffering of the many, and one acts to stop or avoid that outcome; that is a hero. If one acts to advance or support that outcome to cause the suffering of many; that is a villain. The unfortunate part of these dilemmas in the real world is that these situations are rarely that black and white, but with more data, the issues can be nailed down to which shade of grey they may be.

In the world of improvised theater, everything emerges from shades of grey to become black and white, and this happens through the heroic process of being present, listening, agreeing and appreciating ideas, and supporting our fellows. It’s a process that is in play in every healthy community. In my mind, it is our default setting when we are not threatened. Improv training can help us retain our composure when the going gets rough and remember these ideals in a crisis. It can bolster the healthy cells against the cancer of fear and doubt. One more reason to keep spreading the ideas of improvisation to the world…to fill it with heroes. Villains beware!!

Upcoming series: “What Connects Us?”

The Internet, Smart Phones, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Foursquare, Xbox, YouTube, Skype, Email, the Googleverse, international flights, highways, trains, cars: in a world more ‘connected’ than at any point in history, the human race seems to act or ‘is portrayed as’ more disjointed, factionalized, fragmented, and anonymous than ever before. For most of us in the developed world, the speed at which we can “connect” is near to instantaneous, as is the speed at which we can be alienated. In this paradox of modern western developed life (that is dragging the rest of the globe along with it), I believe one question deserves much reflection and meditation, “What Connects Us?” In the asking, it brings into scope numerous and multi-layered issues involving the other side of this coin ‘What Separates Us?’ It is impossible to answer one without addressing the other. This blog series will be a tour de force that uses insights and examples from history, anthropology, neuroscience, and the arts to question and explore our world and discover ‘What Connects Us?’


Beginning this September 2012, I will post a blog a month dealing with the 10 ideas that follow in a search to find the answers. In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of reading to do.

The 10 Ideas:

  • I’m a______, You’re a_______ (Our differing approaches to identity and ambiguity through character)
  • Understanding the balance of ‘Showing and Telling’ (empathy and communication)
  • The commons (social responsibility and the mindset of generosity)
  • The agony and the ecstasy (I feel better if you feel worse vs. I feel better if you feel better; the status-ego tango)
  • My Land, Your Land, Our Land, THE Land (What to do when the natural world that is no longer ‘Fit & Well’?)
  • In the Ever-Changing Maze (Urbanism, Public Relations and the Advent of the Elite Freeloader: causes and symptoms of ‘Hedging, Blocking, and Distracting’)
  • The more people there are; the less one person matters (The changing value of social connections in high human density and low human density environments)
  • On zombies and the finiteness of protein (When we run out of food, we look really tasty: dietary improvisation isn’t always pretty)
  • Yes, and… (a simple tool from the arts with broad applications and outcomes)
  • A lesson from Improvisation: What does this story need to succeed? Serve that Purpose, or ‘save the world; kill your ‘self

Improvisation and the Evolution of Memes

[This is a segment of an article in development]

Variation, one of the essential parts of the theory of evolution, is all about mistakes. Selection is about those mistakes being discarded or used. In improvisation, whether a mistake is useful or should be passed on depends on the social and contextual environment of the current or past play situation within a single performance. In biology, when a mutation/mistake serves to improve things for a particular organism in a particular context, it is selected for and becomes normalized through replication/reproduction/reuse. In improv it would be reincorporation and further exploration/integration of the themes and/or ideas in a single performance. A mutation/mistake that does not serve to improve things, is selected out, diminishes, disappears. The same could be said in an improvised piece of theater.

Effective impro players behave like cellular RNA through taking pieces of behavior, dialogue, and mime to knit together a meaningful and entertaining performance with form, substance, function, and some kick. However, when talking about active/ongoing processes like evolution and improvised performances, there are also issues of generations over time and changes in context/environment that occur due to the degree of dynamism in a context/environment. The biological processes of genetic mutation, selection, and reproduction are echoed in human interaction with memes, which is an idea pioneered by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes are also acted upon by the abundance or scarcity of interaction, as well as the quality and depth of interaction. Learning how to improvise theater is one way to observe and experiment with the process of meme flow, in regards to relationships and identity, and become an engaged and aware producer and consumer in that system of memes.

In personal relationships, I would consider emotions, compatibility, and history as the context/environment that relationship and identity memes inhabit. This applies to developing character relationships in an improvisation; especially when being able to understand, react to, and embody emotions, as well as recognize chemistry, and rapidly develop/imply a history are parts of the program in any kind of improv training. These are the variables that are mutable, which can fluctuate between being easy to adapt to or difficult depending on how dynamic the forces are affecting the relationship between the three factors: emotion, compatibility, and history.

Fear is to Comfort as Famine is to Feast. These are the extremes that cause all the turbulence in a natural system/human relationship. As you would guess, most of the time we’re somewhere in the bell part of the curve and don’t pay much heed to our routine. I think the processes of evolution and extinction come into play as adversaries in times of stress and abundance. Stress is a top-down force of change (rapid extreme environmental variability or a depletion of energy sustaining resources for an organism or dealing with emotional extremes and self-centeredness in any relationship, professional and/or private), and abundance being a bottom-up force of change (Easily acquired energy for an organism or strong cooperation/collaboration in a human relationship), which is what Kieth Sawyer has asserted about improvised theater with his notion of collaborative emergence.

One could also extrapolate this thinking to the technological advancement of plant and animal domestication as ‘collaboratively emerging’ from the meme flow of our ancestors. This may also suggest that prevailing social and cultural forces would affect the rate of flow, variability, scarcity, interaction and abundance of memes, depending on the levels of fear or comfort present in any particular cultural system (where fear is an inhibitor and comfort is an enabler).

The Human Brain on Improvised Theater

Here is the text of a 5-minute speech I gave at Ignite Portland 10:

After performing and teaching improvised theater for years, I noticed two things. 1) in the best of performances, many of us would have this incredible feeling of ‘unity of thought and action’ as a side effect during the show, a sort of group mind. We felt a weird bond that held this sense of clarity and connection that was different from our ordinary play. It was a palpable, almost cosmic, sense of union. It was rare but sublime. 2) At the same time, one of the most common comments from students was that ‘learning improv was like therapy’. As an anthropologist, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what is behind this sense of oneness and personal well-being that was coming out of the process of improvisation for actors and students.

Victor Turner, in his book “From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play”, talked about a temporary deep sensation of unity, shared identity, and oneness arising out of ritual practice. He called it “Spontaneous Communitas”. Other scholars have called this feeling “Group Flow” and “Absolute Unitary Being”. Turner noted that people have also reported feeling these sensations in a number of collaborative forms of play: sports, theater, music, games. We all have the capacity for this experience. This incredible feeling of oneness is more of a rare state of grace than a guaranteed outcome from some formula of words and actions. “Communitas”, “Group Flow”, and “Absolute Unitary Being” were very similar to what performers had long been referring to as “group mind”; the point in some shows where it feels as if the performers are one brain in sync.

Ritual itself is always performed in order to solve a problem presented by and to the verbal analytic part of our brains. Like many human rituals, improvised theater contains elements of narrative and dramatic rhythm and repetition, it is steeped in the social and cultural knowledge of the participants, and it aims to define the individual as part of some larger group or cause. For instance, the football game reaffirms or puts stress on whether you’re a Duck or a Beaver (college football teams in Oregon). West Side Story reaffirms or stresses whether love or loyalty is what we aspire to. This feeling of oneness is also one of the most common threads in the myths underpinning most religions. Four neuroscientists, (Andrew B. Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Charles Laughlin and John McManus) have put in lab time mapping out what happens when that feeling of unity and wholeness comes up in rituals. They point to the behavior of the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is part of the Limbic System, which is highly interconnected with the brain’s pleasure center via the hypothalamus. The rhythm and repetition of ritual behaviors ramp up brain activity. The hippocampus is a sort of traffic cop that regulates brain activity. In the heat of play/ritual, the right hemisphere takes a more dominant role in cognition and can begin to fire in sync with the left hemisphere. This also tends to happen when we dream, meditate, or have an orgasm. If things get too busy, the hippocampus inhibits neural flow until action in the brain settles down. Sometimes during rituals/play, it inhibits flow to the orientation association area. That’s the part of our brain that manages the boundaries of the self and orients that self in space. A reduction in neural flow to this area could explain the sensation of oneness, unity, and universality. It’s like the hippocampus says “Alright, we’re keeping all this traffic out of the self. It needs a rest anyway. It’s always worrying and needing me time.”

Improvised theater is a ritual of play, of sorts, that brings us together into an imaginative examination of the world we live in now or an exploration of what could be. Both play and religion are rivals for being able to bring these feelings of deep momentary union to us. Improv theatre allows us to playfully explore problems and experiment with solutions to a myriad of life’s challenges, and lets us laugh at ourselves in the process. While playing at improv, we are also fine-tuning our own abilities to get the most out of the relationships and interactions in our own lives. This is such an important set of skills to maintain, lest we lose our humanity and passions to the world we see on screens. Improvised theatre is another way to awaken our humanity. This feeling of oneness that arises within us is evidence that our brains are geared to reward us with feelings of pleasure, comfort, and belonging when we fully engage in focused play and religious ritual.


D’Aquili, Eugene & Newberg, Andrew B. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. 1999. Fortress Press: Minneapolis

Fortier, Brad. Long-Form Improvisation: Collaboration, Comedy and Communion. 2010. Lambert Academic Publishing

Hayden, Brian. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion. 2003. Smithsonian Books: Washington

Newberg, Andrew; D’Aquili, Eugene; Rause, Vince. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief. 2001. Random House: New York

Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. 1999. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. 2001. Harvard University Press: Cambridge

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play. 1982. PAJ Publications: 2001

Inspiring Words

I’m in the middle of doing research for another book in the works, and I came across this from Brian Sutton-Smith in his book The Ambiguity of Play:

However, modern chance games and modern festivals have fallen away from religion and become secularized. Yet one can see that, along with all forms of play, they both still provide experiences of “otherness,” “alterity,” or “altered states of consciousness.” And these or similar states of mind are as essential to religious ritual and prayer as they are to game involvement. In both cases one becomes “lost” in the experience and thus transcends everyday care and concerns. It is worth considering that because the two (religion and play) are in modern times so separate, they are in fact rivals for the promotion of such altered states of consciousness. Which means they are rivals for the positive qualities that such alterity provides. One can say of both religion and play that they make life worth living and make everyday activities meaningful, because of the transcendence that they propose, one eternal and one mundane. Perhaps the unwillingness to attribute such experiential transcendence to games of fate exists not just because games of fate are heretical to the work ethic but because, through sharing transcendence with religion, they are actually rivals for its value…One may suppose that with the development of the rhetoric of “optimal experience”, secular civilization may be gradually transforming itself to the point that it can indeed admit that play is as fundamental to life as are survival and religion.