This is a long and probably boring meditation on personal change inspired by the improv intensive that Joe Bill did a couple of weeks ago at VTSL’s Improv Comedy Institute. It was an incredible experience, and I can still feel pieces of it percolating down into the deeper darkness of my mind, changing me as they go.
Change is a tricky thing, and this little essay is going to go skittering all over the place, but the central idea is: our psychological identity is structural, but it’s built on top of a relatively unstructured, amorphous foundation of base impulses and emotions, and if we can drop down to the foundational level it gives us a bunch of tools for changing ourselves in ways that are fairly profound but also relatively painless.
Consider this a bit of thinking out loud to help me through my current process of change, which is ultimately being driven by a couple of things that have nothing to do with improv. If it’s useful to anyone else, great!
As I said, our identity is primarily structural–about which I’ll say more below–but the relatively unstructured emotional foundations are part of our identity too, although they are pretty generic. The Four F’s of evolutionary biology (Fighting, Feeding, Fleeing and Reproduction) that drive most of our emotions are as near to universal as anything, because none of us emerged fully-formed from the head of Zeus: we are the result of an elaborative process operating on the underlying clay of our animal ancestors, and no amount of culture layered on top can change that.
We are evolved social primates, and we come to adulthood after a long process of formal and informal education, so that a typical young adult has a few major structures that constitute their identity. These may relate to their position in their family, their educational or athletic or artistic attainments, and their position relative to various social institutions like political parties, religious organizations, or other volunteer or community groups.
Think of each of these as trees growing from the emotional soil. They are each of them structured, but they have grown up at least somewhat independently of each other. They stand apart from each other, and that means we interact with the world in different modes, depending on which tree we’re climbing at the moment.
The thing is, as we grow these different trees taller over the course of our lives, their branches start to run into each other, and the ideas written on the leaves of one may contradict those written on the leaves of another, so depending how we get to the same place we end up with two different and possibly contradictory beliefs about the same thing.
The classic Freudian contradiction is “I am a good son/daughter” on the “family” tree vs “I’m really pissed off at my parents about a bunch of deep stuff” on the “life experience” one. Another popular contradiction in some countries is “Evolution is true” vs “The Bible is true”. At the beginning of the twentieth century we also had, “Electromagnetic theory is true” against “Galilean relativity is true”, which is why I mention the structure of scientific revolutions in the title. The process of personal change and scientific progress are remarkably similar.
One move people make when they feel themselves getting into contradictory territory is to twist the branches of one or more trees out of the way, so they don’t approach each other so closely. Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of the “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” was one of the more ambitious attempts at this: he just declared the trees marked “religion” and “science” don’t have to overlap.
All such attempts fail, because the reality we inhabit is one particular way at any moment in time. This is the law of identity, and there’s good reason to believe that beings like us are limited to experiencing the world in ways that conform to it.
The practical problem is clear. If we believe that human nature, for example, is both evolved by a process that is just barely sufficient to create adequacy and that human nature was created in the image of a universal ideal that has been corrupted, we are in trouble because what we believe about things conditions how we act toward them, and those particular beliefs push us toward contradictory actions: are we just muddling through, or are we seeking salvation? There will be cases where those two beliefs imply incompatible actions, so we have to choose one and not the other.
Again: each of us is a little grove of trees growing out of the soil of emotion and experience, and over the course of our lives the branches of those trees will run into each other now and then.
Another way of dealing with this reality is to avoid the problem. If you don’t think too much, don’t learn too much, and as much as possible avoid experiencing anything new, the number of collisions will be minimal and you’ll die happy. A lot of people just stop learning very much in their early 20’s, and what they’ve got at that point is adequate to carry them through the rest of their life, which given the haywired mess I was in my early 20’s has always kind of impressed me.
The goal of such people is to limit their learning at most to things that look like growth at the tips of the branches of the tress they already have, and to keep the branches of their little grove well-spaced, so the tree marked “religion” never runs into the one marked “science” or “technology” and “work” never runs too hard up against “family”, and so on. Avoiding cognitive dissonance is a way of keeping the branches of our various trees apart.
There are also people who avoid contradictions by simply denying them, or being too damned stupid to see their belief that the Bible prohibits gay marriage contradicts their belief that there’s nothing wrong with their own three divorces and remarriages.
At the other end of the spectrum there are the people who throw caution to the winds and strive throughout their lives to keep learning, but do so in a way that grows new trees or extends existing ones in carefully controlled ways. They’ve mastered surgery so they take up cooking. They learned to paint so they take up skiing. Or they learn one thing in astonishing detail, growing that tree so much taller than the rest that its branches are far above the rest of the grove. Academics tend to be like this: they are free to explore any question within their own subject because they know it will never get close to anything else in their lives.
Then there are the integrators, who for whatever reason have decided that there only ought to be one tree, one massive trunk that branches out in all directions. They–or I guess I should be honest and say “we”–spend our lives figuring out how to map parts of our different trees onto each other, or how to kill off old structures we’ve found to be useless or damaging. People like this tend to go where the cognitive dissonance is highest because that’s where the interesting stuff happens. We seek out the contradictions in our own beliefs because they identify places where we have unifying work to do.
Sometimes people like this try to start from scratch, growing a whole new tree of knowledge (you knew I was going to use that eventually, right?) that subsumes all the rest, which are left to wither. Joseph Smith, Karl Marx and Siddhartha Gautama are of this kind.
I think of myself more as a banyan kind of person: gathering my grove into a hybrid trunk that still has a lot of internal structure, even though it has a kind of unity. There are still a bunch of weird little shrubs growing loose as well, because I’m not totally sold on the idea of One Big Tree any more. There’s no reason why a well-tended and diverse garden around a central tree can’t be a pleasant place to pass a lifetime.
But still, given this model, lasting structural change can only take place in a couple of ways:
1) Grow a new tree that captures some new aspect of yourself
2) Trim (or chop down) and old tree or branch that’s blocking the sunlight, infested with parasites, entangled with other, healthier trees or branches, or is rotten and fragile.
3) Some combination of the two, which may include grafting a bit of an old tree onto a new one before you kill it off, or simply moving a branch around within an existing tree by cutting it off one place and grafting it on another. I do a lot of that.
It’s important to remember that most learning isn’t like this: it’s just growing your grove, tending your garden, elaborating on the structures you’ve already spent a lifetime developing. This is as is should be. If you’re undergoing extensive structural change every single day–especially by the time you reach my age–you’re probably doing something wrong.
Incrementally “growing out” our existing structures is also the least painful but slowest way to change who we are. Most of our education is like this, and it can and does create permanent, profound change in who we are and how we experience and interact with the world. It’s limited by whatever structure we start with, though, unless we’re starting from scratch on a subject and growing an all-new tree.
But that kind of change can only take us so far, and Joe Bill’s intensive gave me a nice contrast between incremental change and structural change.
In “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” Thomas Kuhn argued that science changes like this: decades or centuries of “normal science” that grows incrementally, interrupted by periods of revolutionary change to reconcile the contradictions that had accumulated over that time. This seems to me a pretty good metaphor for life: we go along living, blissfully unaware that by learning this or that we’re eventually going to reach a point where we have to admit to ourselves that our belief that anthropogenic climate change has the potential to end human civilization and kill billions of people contradicts our long-standing opposition to nuclear power (which is currently our only zero-emission replacement for base load coal and oil, which account for some 80% of human CO2 emissions). Or something like that.
In the early twentieth century physicists faced the problem that their theory of electromagnetic phenomena contradicted the idea that velocities were simply additive, so if two cars were driving toward each other each with a speed of 50 kilometres per hour they would have a mutual speed of 100 kilometres per hour. Also, the orbit of Mercury wasn’t quite right. Small things, but they caused decades of upheaval and the destruction and reformation of two hundred years of accumulated structure.
None of that revolutionary change could have happened without the incremental change that preceded it, and once the dust had mostly settled from the revolutionary change we happily went back to the incremental change of normal science, which a century later is still clunking along. The two kinds of change depend on each other and support each other, and a great deal of the old structure persisted through the change.
The thing about revolutionary change though, is that it involves throwing away or tearing down structures you’ve spent a lot of time and effort building up.
It also hurts, if you’re conscious while it’s happening.
The worst, most painful kind of change is when we can’t just grow a new tree or graft on a bit of another one, but are stuck in a way that requires us to change the structure of an existing tree–call it “Social Interaction”, say–in place, because we can’t afford to throw away all the knowledge it contains. We can’t go back to the start. We have to fix it. Branches that used to be separate have to come back together, or two branches that used to both come off the trunk to turn into one branch off the trunk with the other growing out of it, and so on.
Imagine what our bodies would look like at the age of 20 if we had a reasonably high degree of control over their basic structure. A kid who was bullied might have seen fit to move a hand around to their back so they could use it to ward off attacks. Other kids might have grown extra arms at the expense of well-developed legs, and so on. That’s pretty much what our psychological structure often looks like at that age: a collection of parts that are set up to do the things we needed them to do while adolescents but that aren’t necessarily well-suited for the rest of our lives.
What happens then is more like a wind storm or a chain saw: major branches get chopped off or blown away and new growth replaces them with things that can accommodate the new reality of adulthood. As adults we might go through this process several times over our lives as we run into more and deeper contradictions and falsehoods in our basic beliefs about ourselves and the world.
All of that hurts.
Organisms evolved pain as an adjunct to homeostatis and integrity. Pain is a signal that the unity that constitutes our identity–either physical or mental–is being damaged, and motivates us to act in ways that stop it. Pain is an evolved response to damage.
Structural change–even positive, healthy, necessary change–is damage (from the point of view of existing structures) so it hurts.
This is what makes learning–even incremental elaboration on stuff we already know–hard.
There is a lot of good to be had from incremental learning. Although my early training–decades ago–was more wholistic, most of the improv instruction I’ve had recently has been incremental: a mix of learning the rules and practising them. The rules are things like, “Don’t ask too many questions” and “Avoid transaction scenes” and “Listen” and “Make big emotional responses” and “Commit to a character” and so on. These lessons are combined with exercises that illustrate and implement the rules, or that violate them to demonstrate that following them is a good thing.
This is all good, solid necessary “normal science”: if we didn’t do this kind of thing there would never be revolutionary change, which is entirely dependent on the incremental steps that build up an inventory of contradictions that have to be resolved via restructuring. The trick is to make that restructuring painless enough to be possible.
That’s where Joe Bill’s thing comes in.
We were all at least a bit experienced so we were presumed to know the rules, but the style of teaching wasn’t about the rules at all. It was about the state of mind, and it was about breaking down existing structures so we could reconstruct ourselves in new ways.
It was painful, but a hell of a lot less painful than change of this kind usually is. It was also fun, in the way that any difficult shared experience is fun.
When we engage in rules and practice we are treating the rules as signposts that point us toward improv nirvana: the open and creative and spontaneous and emotionally engaged state of mind that gives us the flexibility and freedom to inhabit a character completely and react with authenticity as that character to any situation, no matter how weird or unexpected.
Those signposts point along an incremental road, one that is safe, staid and plodding.
Joe Bill’s approach was to induce that state of improv nirvana via what I’m going to call “hypnosis” (which is how he described it at one point) and let us experience it. We weren’t “following the rules” down the incremental path. We were instead transported directly to a place where the rules were simply built into the basic physics of the world, and we were “just” experiencing and interacting as was permitted or required by the nature of that place.
I’ve studied hypnosis a bit–sufficiently to be able to induce a reasonable trance and implant an effective post-hypnotic suggestion in a willing subject, even if they aren’t particularly hypnotizable–and I really do think that what Joe was doing was kind of like that.
The key to hypnosis is disruption. Temporal, sequential, Bayesian consciousness–where all our structural identity lives–is a relatively delicate thing, which is why we are so often in so much psychological pain: we bruise easily, and break without much more difficulty.
But it also means that with the right inducement, we can disrupt those structures for good. Or evil. Humans will believe anything under the right circumstances. Completely crazy things, like “the toxicity of a substance is tightly correlated with the complexity of its name.”
It’s a somewhat dangerous business, but I got the impression that Joe Bill knew exactly what he was doing. He observed all of us carefully and suggested specific exercises that helped each of us in different ways.
The basis of the technique is to take the student down into the primordial emotional ooze and then bring them back up in another place, a kind of a shadow-land, a place that we have imagined into existence, where we’ve actually integrated all that we’ve been learning about improv into our identity. Maybe other people experienced this quite differently, but that’s how it was for me.
Then we got to play around in that place, to experience it and grow into it and make it a little more real, before inevitably returning to the ordinary world.
Rather than burn down any major structures or reformat existing ones or build new ones, we simply climbed all the way down into our emotional foundations and imagined a temporary, transient, quick and flimsy structure into existence, a prototype based on the rules we’d already learned and guided by Joe’s advice.
As these things go, it was pretty painless–excruciating, but bearable and even fun–although it was also a profound change in state. That’s fairly remarkable.
The trick now, for me at least, is how to recapitulate that temporary structure into something more permanent so my performance will get better and stay better. The other trick is how to accommodate that structure in the rest of my life, or rather how to accommodate the rest of my life to the existence of that new structure, those new branches in my banyan tree that are growing apace, unbalancing the whole.
In terms of performance, I felt I got places that I want to be. I was in the right state of mind, letting the scene grow organically, and I was engaged, listening, and without fear. There’s some law in economics that says, “If something has happened, it is possible.” That applies here: I now know I am able to do those things, even if I can expect to struggle to find my way back to that place. But I can do it, and I can grow a more permanent structure that will let me get there easily. I know it’s possible, and I have some solid ideas about how to get to it and rebuild it. Now all I have to do is practice.
In terms of my life, making room for that new structure puts some pressure on the old ones. I came away from the weekend knowing that I’ve been hesitating to commit to writing for a living because I’m too comfortable where I am in my life. I’ve worked a long time to get here and for the past few years I’ve been letting myself cruise along. I could do that for the rest of my life if I felt like it.
But I don’t feel like it. I’m not happy being content. So as the lessons and experiences from that weekend percolate down into the darkness, the compass of my life is swinging around, and I’m taking concrete steps to move in a new direction.