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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Improvisation: the Original Survival Tool

When it came down to it, mother nature laid the smackdown on early Homo Sapiens. We arrive in the archeological record about 200,000 years ago. About 90,000 years ago, Africa’s climate became extremely arid in a very short time leading to a resource crisis. No food and no water means no surviving for many of the early Homo Sapiens. If you look at our genetic diversity, it tells the story. What this means is that contemporary Homo Sapiens, us, lack the kind of diversity seen prior to 70 to 90,000 years before the present.

How does the saying go? Hard Times bring a family together. Looking at the fossil record, along with the inferences of genetic evidence in our own DNA, suggests that we nearly didn’t make it. The estimate is that we dwindled to between 1,000 -10,000 individuals capable of reproducing, which created a genetic bottleneck. That’s smaller than most suburbs (heck, a neighborhood), and that is how many people survived to produce the 7 billion and rising on the planet today. Quite a comeback, I would say. The thing is that because there are so many people, it’s impossible to care about all of them. Because of the limits of our own abilities to connect meaningfully with more than about 150 people at any one time, we have no attachment to the hoards of others that blanket the planet despite attempts to connect us through media. We respond to tragic events when they happen because our brains’ mirror neuron systems allow us to feel their discomfort on some level. For most of us, once the check or cash is sent those feelings often dissipate, and we return to business as usual. These understandings would have been critical to people trying to survive. If your group doesn’t function well in times of scarcity and difficulty, it can tear apart the social fabric and lead to serious, sometimes fatal, consequences.

We have developed into beings whose state is situated in the median range of the immediate. We have developed to have the sensibilities of an improviser. What is in front of me? How can I build with this or on it or use it? How do these things or people connect, and what happens when they do? What are my companions feeling? How can I improve or change these relationships? The reason we have this legacy of improvisational sensibility is that these thoughts and behaviors were, more than likely, what led to the survival of those desperate 1,000-10,000 survivors who made it through that 20,000 year stretch of hard times to emerge from Africa to populate a world whose climate was returning to a time of abundance and seasonality. That’s the way selection works. It could have also been that we require less calories to live than the Neanderthal. Seems oxymoronic considering where we are now.

These folks didn’t survive because they were screwing each other over and hoarding resources to the ‘deserving’ few in their tribe. Quite the contrary, most foragers operating from a preconquest consciousness have an egalitarian ethos that puts the individual as subservient to the group; leaders are appointed and impeached by the group, as necessary. Couple this with the fact that we have cognitive mechanisms that intellectually and emotionally reward us for intensive organized collaboration, cooperation and creative exploration (communitas, absolute unitary experience, group flow, whatever you want to call it), and we’ve found some very compelling evidence to suggest that the ethos of support and generosity that is native to improvisation is at the core of our beings. Improvisers are trained specifically to look out for and support their partners and group in order to find success as a whole. Hoarding and self-aggrandizement are things that come out of agriculture, urbanism and consumerism. I think Jared Diamond has covered that subject pretty well. His explorations of the collapse of the Anasazi, Romans and Aztecs in his book Collapse help to clarify the outcomes of the self-centerdness and hierarchy that are the tendency of “civilization”.

The most common form of organized collaborative cooperative creative exploration across the globe is ritual, and a lot of things can fall into that category (music, theater, sports, even some games). Rituals often combine elements like music, dance, myth, and physical challenges in a communal setting. Is it any wonder then, when we look back at the things we find in ancient Homo Sapien sites on the coasts of Africa dated to around 70,000 years ago, that we find the first evidence of red ochre being harvested and stored? Red ochre is the most ancient form of symbolic adornment. To symbol, to create something outside of ourselves that communicates meaning, had almost never been seen in the archeological record until these sites. Throughout the archeological record, red ochre is commonly related to ritual and other symbolic behaviors. Considering that we are descended from these survivors, it is not surprising to see that ritualistic activities are one of the most common features of human society.

We, as a species, are in the business of creating occasions for these sorts of collaborative and sometimes ecstatic events. Our brains are geared to overload when we earnestly undertake these collaborations and provide us with a sublime and indescribable sense of unity and connection with each other and the world at large. What a wonderful adaptation for dealing with tremendous difficulty and adversity? The only other thing that can do this on a more common and less formalized scale is humor. This unifying state is also an amazing way for our brains to be networked, and find innovative solutions to the problems of the world at large.

So it stands to reason that improvisation is a secular road to our social and cultural health as beings on this planet. It also stands to reason that the tools of improvised theater help us find not only depth and detail in life and relationships, but they also help us find humor. Improvisation helps us exercise our brains’ mirror neuron systems, which are appearing to be integral to communication, learning and understanding. The training people receive while studying improvisation is focused on understanding human relationships; both what makes them succeed and what makes them fail. Improvised theater is igniting a sort of grass roots social rebooting. It has the power to awaken people to the present.

The challenges that are emerging in the 21st century will demand more than we’ve had to give in a long time as a species. The last big shift in global climate, the end of the ice age, led to the disappearance of all other hominid species; making us the lone hominids. Even though huge climatic shift events are what have led to great leaps in human brain evolution, it was because we were in a desperate fight to survive, and only those who figured out how to work together and enjoy it made it out alive. Certainly, there was inter-group competition for resources, but it was definitely rarer than the intra-group collaboration, cooperation and creativity that were employed in the daily struggle to survive. These are the very skills that are lacking in the upcoming generation of technologically-dependent and increasingly socially-inept children in the developed world. We are breeding a generation of social illiterates whose narcissism could lead to a dangerous turning point in human history. A point in history where we’ve gone so far away from genuinely connecting with each other and the planet that sustains us, that it becomes the final chapter in humanities book.

After all, Neanderthals were only on the planet for 300,000 years. We’ve only been here for a little over 200,000. If there’s one thing all species have in common, its extinction. To succeed in improvisation and evolution, one must accept and adapt to the new conditions. To deny the changes we observe is to invite being edited out of the scene and out of history. What kind of epitaph will our species have if that happens: Here lies Homo Sapien, the species who ‘blocked’ and ‘denied’ into oblivion?