Just your Imagination?

Part 1: Acting

Martin Parkinson looks at some of the things he learned in drama class....

Published in The skeptic Vol 19 no1 Spring 2006

Professor Edzard Ernst, speaking at the ECSO conference in Sept 2003, described the design of an experiment to test the efficacy of 'spiritual healing'. To begin with, the control for the group of healers being tested had been a group of actors but the healers complained that this was unfair because the actors possessed genuine healing gifts of which they themselves were unaware. I laughed out loud at this: it was clearly the healers who had untapped acting talent of which they were unaware. Drama deals in fiction but this is not necessarily the same as falsehood or lying; drama is valued for the emotional engagement it can generate, for its power in the emotional realm. It can make you experience things more intensely, make you see the world differently, shed new light on old problems. In a broad sense it can make you feel better when you feel bad. A good actor can do this: indeed the ability to alter peoples feelings is what 'good' means in acting terms. And what does a good spiritual healer do?

In my article on motivation gurus (vol 16 no 1 spring 2003) I commented that "Anyone who has undergone even a small amount of drama training will have experienced the emotional energy that can be generated by a well-directed group....". I certainly don't claim to be any sort of major thesp but in the mid to late nineties I took a number of adult education classes in drama at the City Lit in London, and when I wrote those words I was thinking of a two-week summer school I attended. By the end of the fortnight I felt that I had completed a pretty intense experience. I felt a bit odd; emotionally opened out and very bonded with the other dozen or so course members. If you think about it, this is hardly a surprising result. One way or another, the only raw materials that actors have, the stuff that has to be studied, manipulated, transformed, and then re-presented to the world, are their own feelings. This means that drama training will inevitably have something in common with psychotherapy.

There are courses, 'seminars' and programmes which promise personal transformation: attend the course and your thought and behaviour will change so much that you in effect become a new person. It is indeed true that you can change your personality thoroughly and rapidly: the technical term for this is acting and the effects are fortunately only temporary. In drama training you are carefully taught how to become a different person for a short while; in self-transformation programmes you seem to be forcibly tipped into it without precautions. I recently read Margaret Thaler Singer's Cults in Our Midst (2003) and was struck by the accounts of people who have been damaged by 'large group awareness training'. It may be a cliché to talk about 'the power of the imagination' but such people are the victims of the misunderstanding and misuse of this power.

So if I were an agony-uncle I would urge my readers: "you don't need to bother with this commercial muck that has all the goodness taken out and replaced with dubious additives because there is an alternative that is cheap, nutritious, and healthy". In contrast to seminar leaders and motivation gurus, I would like to introduce you to drama teacher Keith Johnstone, well known for his work on improvisation (many of the exercises I encountered in drama classes were devised by Johnstone). As you might expect, he is an acute natural psychologist and I shall be quoting extensively from his books Impro and Impro for Storytellers (Johnstone 1989, 1999).

Consciousness issues

Good acting doesn't seem like acting at all: it feels in some sense genuine, for the practitioner as much as the audience. The experience of acting makes me doubt the commonsense concept of a single unitary consciousness. Even a duffer like myself has experienced this: when a scene 'works' (the audience and performers find themselves emotionally engaged with it), as a performer you simultaneously know that you are, for example, in a specific field in Suffolk and simultaneously, in a studio in central London: both awarenesses are 'real'. This bears some resemblance to the description of 'double consciousness' found in hypnosis (discussed in any serious introduction to the subject, such as Bowers 1983).

And what of the strange business of pretending to be a different person? What is 'personality' anyway?

I see the 'personality' as a public-relations department for the real mind, which remains unknown. My personality always seems to be functioning, at some level, in terms of what other people think. If I am alone in a room and someone knocks on the door, then I 'come back to myself'. Normal consciousness is related to transactions, real or imagined, with other people. That's how I experience it... (Impro p. 153)

There is an impro exercise called 'magic box' in which you remove mimed objects from a mimed box and describe them. The important part of this game is to 'take out' whatever pops into your head, no matter how silly or embarrassing. You might see a student feeling around in the 'box', then a small change in their demeanour tells you they've 'found' something. "What is it?" says the class tutor. The student pulls a face "eughh. It's a big white hanky made all stiff with dried up snot...". "There's lots of other stuff in there - take something else out" prompts the tutor. The student scrabbles around and removes something an inch or two across "it's one of those super-bouncy rubber balls that I remember playing with as a kid...", "describe it", "it's a sort of orangey whitey reddish swirly pattern - like a picture of a planet in a junior science book" et cetera. Both the effortlessness and degree of detail of one's spontaneous imagery are notable. It would be difficult for anyone who has ever played this game to think that memories could be genuinely enhanced or 'recovered' by means of hypnosis or otherwise: convincing imagery is just so easy to generate, and a part of you does experience it as 'real'.

The pervasiveness of suggestibility

In the game 'one word at a time', a story is collectively improvised by a group of people each taking it in turn to say just one word. One thing that struck me about the results of this game together with 'magic box' is that we hardly seem to have an original idea in our heads: the same item will keep coming out of the box; words that suggest themselves will clearly come from something quite unconnected that happened earlier in the class, or that is in the headlines or whatever. An embarrassingly high degree of suggestibility seems the norm.

It's a tautology to say that normal people are the most suggestible, since it's because they're the most suggestible that they're the most normal! (Impro p. 157)

Should this disturb us - is suggestion a powerful tool which can be used to control people? Deliberate suggestion can be used to affect behaviour, in limited circumstances, but is on the whole not very reliable because targeted suggestions have to compete with ambient suggestions: the world is just too noisy. There is some further discussion of this in part 2.

Pseudo-psi effects

Johnstone's comments about 'one word at a time' are striking:

One version of the game...involved telling a story around a circle as quickly as possible. sometimes we did it to a beat...You can make the game tougher by having each person who speaks point to the person who is to say the next word, there's no way to anticipate when your turn comes.

Anyone who tries to control the future of the story can only succeed in ruining it. Every time you add a word, you know what word you would like to follow. Unless you can continually wipe your ideas out of your mind you're paralysed. You can't adapt to the words said by other people.

[...] Once you say whatever comes to mind, then it's as if the story is being told by some outside force. I wouldn't be surprised to find that there are cultures which use the method as a form of divination. (Impro p 131. My italics)

The next step from improvising a story sequentially is to improvise dialogue in unison:

I explained that if they start by saying 'Errr', or by making the very first sound of a word, it ought to be possible to improvise dialogue en masse...The greater the number of players, the easier this game becomes (because the players who try to be original are drowned out by those who are being more obvious). At a conference in Svenborg, each 'character' was composed of two hundred and fifty people, and the game worked flawlessly. (Impro for storytellers pp 171-172)

Here, a group of actors are improvising a 'date' with the audience:

...the 'blind date' mimed bringing a very large 'present'

'Do you know what it is?' chorused the actors.

"It's aaaa biiccyyyccclleee!" screamed the audience, without hesitation, although how such agreement was achieved baffled us. (Impro for storytellers p175)

No wonder telepathy seems so plausible. On a similar theme, here is the beginning of an interesting discussion by Johnstone about what he terms 'space':

When I was commissioned to write my first play I'd hardly been inside a theatre, so I watched rehearsals to get the feel of it. I was struck by the way space flowed around the actors like a fluid. As the actors moved I could feel imaginary iron filings marking out the force fields.[...] As one changed position so all the others altered their postures. Something seemed to flow between them. [...] The very best actors pump out space and suck it in, or at least that's what it feels like (Impro p 57)

What is he talking about here? Can you sense 'something' flowing between people? What about when someone is approaching you along the street? What decides who gives way? Or observing colleagues in an office - could you tell who was the more senior just by watching them chat? I think I know exactly what Johnstone is talking about and that the sensations he is describing are real and near-universal but not remotely paranormal (Johnstone is not implying that they are). We are a such an intensely social and hierarchical species that we need to be exquisitely responsive to others, we have to be able to 'read' peoples emotions rapidly, instinctively, and viscerally (its most powerful form, when it cannot be mistaken and feels dangerous to override, is known as gut feeling). This 'social sense' is so utterly pervasive in our being that its milder manifestations carry no name, and so when it is dragged up to the level of conscious awareness where it can be examined, we are surprised and it feels like the discovery of something special. Hence, I am quite sure, some of the people who sincerely believe they have psychic powers.

This thought forms a nice segue into part 2 of this article where I discuss the psychology behind one of the martial arts.

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Bowers, Kenneth S. (1983) Hypnosis for the Seriously Curious. New York: W.W. Norton & company.

Johnstone, Keith (1989) Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. London: Methuen.

Johnstone, Keith (1999) Impro for Storytellers. London: Faber and Faber.

Singer, Margaret Thaler (2003). Cults in our Midst San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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© copyright 2005 Martin Parkinson, all rights reserved; moral rights asserted. Last updated 22 may 2005