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

Smelling a Rat on Easter Island

Tonight I attended a talk by Terry Hunt, an archeologist whose done a lot of research on Easter Island. Let me preface this by noting that I’ve been interested in Easter Island since watching an episode of “In Search Of” back in the late 70’s. My curiosity was further piqued by the historical fiction film about the island called Rapa Nui. Jared Diamond also used it to help illustrate his ideas in his book Collapse.

However, tonight’s talk was a great example of how the constant review and revision process of science can lead us to better understandings through maintaining a critical approach to ‘established’ realities. The big ideas behind the ‘collapse’ of Easter Island (that supposedly left a society of people who built the great stone statues) are that they deforested, overfished, and drastically degraded the ecology of the island due to self-aggrandizing competition between zealous leaders of these people. The iconic statues were a product of elite pride which drove the populous to carve these giants to serve their chieftain.

The narrative that Dr. Hunt wove from his years of research on the island turned out to be quite different. Strangely, at the beginning of his research, he truly believed he was merely going to catalog the evidence that was going to support the assumptions of previous researchers who had proposed the human driven ecological collapse. A different picture began to emerge.

One of the first things that got dealt with was the movement of those giant statues. Originally, when Europeans first landed on the island, they had asked the inhabitants how the monuments had been moved from the stone quarry to their standing sites, which can be up to several miles away. The native residents said in essence ‘They walked there’. This answer was considered a humorous ruse by the early Europeans, and it was dismissed and left a mystery. Through a closer analysis, as well as some collaboration with a design program in Washington, they came to discover that the statues could be easily moved by a simple process of rocking them right to left. The way that the statues were constructed gave them the perfect center of gravity for just such movement. The reason that this discovery is important is because it meant that deforestation wasn’t truly necessary to construct any kind of sled or rollers in order to transport the statues. The natives had not lied. The statues had indeed walked there (with a little help from the islanders, of course).

So what made the trees disappear? Were they making a bunch of boats for fishing? The answer is no. The species of palm that covered the island when the Polynesians first colonized it were soft and fibrous on the inside with a very thin bark, which made them terrible material for dugout canoes. This situation, coupled with the fact that the nearest island was over a thousand miles away, essentially left them stranded. However, there were some stow aways that arrived on the island with them, the pacific rat.

This rat is different from its old world cousins in that it isn’t really a disease vector. Instead, it is a natural deforester AND a fast growing source of protein. Like other rats, they are prolific breeders. To illustrate this, Dr. Hunt presented the figure that the amount of time it takes to go from one breeding pair of rats to 1 million in an environment with no predators only takes a couple of years because the number of rats doubles every 47 days. 47 days! The rats feed on the yummy seeds and fruit dropped by the palms. So within a couple of years of the Polynesians making landfall at Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the process of renewal in this palm jungle was brought to a screeching halt. The abundance of rat bones in the soil layers that date to this period support this notion.

The early Polynesians who were colonizing the island probably didn’t mind. They were agriculturalists who preferred a clearing of the palms to make way for the planting of taro and yams, the main subsistence crops of many pacific island cultures. Once the trees were gone, though, there was nothing holding back the wind that swept over the island, and that wind carried salt spray onto the island’s soils making them unfit for cultivation. When the Europeans made landfall, the island looked rocky and forbidding, and from the European agricultural perspective, it looked unfit to grow crops.

This was the prevailing idea until Terry and his research uncovered a peculiar pattern. At numerous places across the island, it seemed as if rocks had been collected and concentrated in patches. As they looked into the patterns and began testing the conditions that these rock fields created, they came to find that these were actually cultivation plots. The subsurface conditions of these rocky fields were far more stable and nurturing to these cultivars than the soils.

The dispersal of these fields was fairly even, and it suggests that small bands merely tended their own plots. What this also implies on a social level is that they were more likely to be an island of friendly neighbors. Considering that the entire island gets to experience boom or drought together, there was little need for conflict. The experience of resource scarcity or abundance was island-wide rather than patch or range based like on larger land masses.

Because of the scarcity of resources on the island, there was a need to control the population. This usually meant maintaining the number of births either through birth control or infanticide. This is a common theme for island cultures. Limited land means limited resources. Too many mouths to feed leads to starvation. However, the creative energy and social satisfaction in a community that comes with having children regularly is missing. Dr. Hunt proposes that the creation of the idols was a way for people to gather, create and foster solidarity in a community where children are scarce by neccesity. The creation of the famous statues was a mechanism to keep peoples’ morale up.

So the 3000 or so residents, who greeted the first Europeans to arrive, were not the remnants of a once great people but rather living how people had been living for hundreds of years since colonizing the island originally. The real devastation came with the diseases from first contact with Europeans. This revised tale of Rapa Nui helps support the notion that the tools of improvisation (making do with what’s at hand, holding the frame of ‘we all win or lose together’, group collaboration being an avenue to fulfillment) really are the most apt approach for dealing with adversity and creating populations of people with a core mindset of sustainability. Easter Island is no longer an example of the dangers of overconsumption, but a testament to the tenacity, ingenuity and wisdom people can bring to potentially desperate situations.

Terry Hunt’s book about this subject comes out this June. Check it out.