Direct Encounter

Jan 28, 2013

At the Theater Communications Group Conference in Baltimore in 2009, “Generation Y” representative Nadira Hira bounded onto the stage and announced that she would not be using any PowerPoint in her talk.  Hooray. What a relief!  After several days of presentations and lectures with endless visual information displayed behind the speakers, I was relieved to be spoken to without technical support and accouterments.  Hira went on to explain that her generation is moving away from PowerPoint lectures because they understand the physical intensity of speaking directly to an audience.

What do they understand? 

A PowerPoint presentation, with its bullet points, charts and graphs, activates a very small portion of the brain– the Broca and Wernicke areas.  These brain regions process language.  Words are decoded into meaning.  That’s it.  When a PowerPoint presentation is in process, the brain shuts down to a small area of function.

In comparison, metaphor, storytelling, and emotional exchange between people or portrayed between characters can stimulate the brain as a whole and can even change the way we act in life. Stories are journeys of the mind that provide the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.   If I can engage a person’s imagination, I will have managed to link our brains one to the other.  Our brains are synchronized.  We are literally sharing brain activity.

If we are receptive and use our imaginations, the stories that we hear can give us the sensation that we are actually undergoing the experience being related.  Words themselves are powerful stimulants of brain activity. Words describing motion stimulate the motor cortex, which is the area activated in the midst of actual motion.  Likewise, the sensory cortex is aroused by descriptions or metaphors about touch and taste.

Generally we feel more engaged with narrative than with facts. In the thrall of a story, not only are the language processing parts of the brain activated, but also the identical synaptic activity that would happen if we were actually experiencing the events of the story. By simply telling a story I can plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listener’s brain. If I tell the story effectively, I will have succeeded in engaging the receiver in a multitude of thoughts, sensations, feelings and associations.

In a classroom or lecture situation I convey information to a large extent via storytelling.  I recount the story of how I personally learned the point I am trying to make.  I find that in telling my own stories, the ones that have helped to shape my thinking and action, it is possible to have a similar effect upon the listeners as the original experience did for me.  If interested enough and open to what I have to say, others can learn to live and learn through my own life-encounters.  Of course they translate my experience with their own imagery, associations and thoughts.  But in telling the stories, there is the chance that my brain might synchronize successfully with theirs. When our brains are properly synchronized, others are able share my hard won experiences.

Princeton psychologist Uri Hasson calls this synchronization “brain-coupling”. The listener’s brain activity mirrors the speaker’s.  According to Hasson, the greater the coupling, the greater the mutual understanding.  Communication between brains may be facilitated by a shared neural system that links the production of speech to the perception of speech.

The reason that stories work so well with humans is because stories are essentially a reflection of how we think.  We make up short stories of cause and effect for every aspect of our daily lives.  We are constantly constructing narratives that might explain our day-to-day experience.  We tend to apply explanations of cause and effect, utilizing what we have already experienced with the new information and then we link all of those bits into new narratives. And this is also what constitutes a story.  Stories are fragments of cause and effect linked together. When we hear a new story, we try to apply it to the storehouse our own accumulated experiences or our own stories or narratives.

Stories and metaphors plant ideas into other peoples’ heads. Metaphors in particular have the exceptional capacity to activate wide ranging mental activity by stimulating the understanding of one element through the experience of another.  In the imaginative hunt for similar experiences, metaphors can activate a part of the brain called the Insula, which helps to identify analogous incidents of revulsion, pain, joy or whatever else held power over our attention previously. 

Let’s return to the notion of direct encounter and the power of unmediated communication in contrast to PowerPoint presentations.  For the most powerful, all-encompassing experiences, it’s best not to shut the brain down to the administration of facts.  In the theater, generally we hope that the audience will be fully available to the impact of direct experience.  In rehearsal too, it is the rapture of direct encounter that yields the alchemy of powerful moments on the stage.

During Suzuki and Viewpoints classes, SITI Company asks that the participants not take notes, even when watching.  The act of recording what took place takes one away from the very next thing that happens in the room.  We encourage participants to write notes after class but not during class.  In class we ask for full engagement and experience without the bookkeeping brain dominating. 

In Paris, in 1971, writer Deirdre Bair met with Samuel Beckett to request permission to conduct extensive interviews with him for what would become a definitive biography about the playwright.  Beckett granted Bair consent but on the condition that she not tape-record their conversations or even take notes while together.  Bair agreed nervously.  During their nearly three hundred interviews, she listened closely to Beckett who described countless details about his life and work.  Then she rushed back to her hotel room to quickly tape-record her memories of Beckett’s words that day.  From this she constructed a readable and consequential biography published in 1978. 

Perhaps Beckett understood that an unmediated connection between Bair and him would reap more riches than standard interview techniques that depend upon recording and recounting. Perhaps he trusted the event of their human connection from moment to moment more than any act of reported facts. Perhaps what happened between them, together with Bair’s reconstructed memories of their direct encounters, is what makes her biography of Beckett successful and interesting.