Several years ago I conducted a ten-day Viewpoints workshop at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with members of the PlayMakers Company and graduate students from the University of North Carolina. At the time I was furiously studying neuroscience in preparation for a SITI production about the brain entitled Who Do You Think You Are. My friend Bonnie Raphael, the vocal coach at Playmakers, mentioned that the neurophysiologist R. Grant Steen lived in Chapel Hill and taught at the University. When Bonnie uttered his name I let out a little gasp because I was just then reading Steen’s insightful and readable book entitled The Evolving Brain: The Known and the Unknown. Bonnie generously arranged for the three of us to have dinner together. After good food and an excellent conversation about the state of neuroscience, I invited Professor Steen to attend a public Viewpoints showing to mark the end of the Playmakers workshop. He did show up and sat through the open Viewpoints session. Afterwards during the Q and A he raised his hand and said: “What I am seeing onstage is how the brain works!” He went on to explain what he meant.
Recently I emailed Professor Steen to ask if he remembered his exact reflections on that day and he immediately returned volley with great detail and eloquence. With his permission, here is his reply:
What I meant in my comment was that the way people related to each other on stage at first seemed random. But, as I watched, I began to discern a pattern and to see the rules governing those interactions. I didn’t know all of the rules–I know you explained them before the exercise, but it was all quite new to me and all that I remembered was that there were explicit instructions–but as I watched carefully I could begin to infer those rules in action.
Subsets of people seemed to behave in different ways, as if they had interpreted the rules differently. As I watched carefully, it seemed that I could classify types of people-neurons as well as styles of interaction between them. Some people were awkward, some fluid, some people seemed to reflect back what they saw in the other person and some people seemed to have internalized the rules and made something different from them. In other words, the rules had been reinterpreted and the people-neurons were showing emergent properties that had not been built into the system in the first place.
Finally, connections were made and unmade between people, the way that neurons can interact or be quiescent. Sometimes an interaction would flare up and be quite active; sometimes an active interaction would slow and cease. Observing from the outside, one could only wonder at the separate motivations for the interactions.
It all began to seem like a microcosm of the brain, but one that could be understood eventually. I am not convinced that the human brain can ever truly understand itself. We can certainly come to understand the plumbing and wiring–the perfusion of the brain with blood and the physical connections between neurons. But the emergent properties of the brain seem likely to defeat our understanding. I think we will need a bigger brain to understand the one we already have.
The Viewpoints is a practice of uninterrupted connection that requires skill, patience and sustained attention. Skill, patience and sustained attention can be acquired over time and with diligent practice and the activation of conscious delay (see my last blog entitled “conscious delay”). But as our world speeds up and our attention is consistently under attack through the seductive lure of distraction, the practice of purposeful delay has become a radical act.
Because many of us inhabit a culture in which our days are filled with the constant ping and tremor of interruption, life is becoming increasingly jagged and confused. With the birth of each new interactive bit of technology, our brains are increasingly seduced into the feel-good dopamine surges provided by accessing the ongoing electronic reports from the busy world around us. Because our engagement in the present moment is constantly interrupted, sustained connection and deliberate slowness are increasingly rare.
The sustained connection of the Viewpoints reminds me of a concept in physics called “quantum entanglement.” Some scientists propose that there are no “things” but only relations, where objects can become linked and instantaneously influence one another regardless of distance. According to this line of thinking, when two or more particles interact, their wave function becomes entangled in such a way that the properties of each particle become dependent upon what happens to the other particle.
In the Viewpoints we exist only in relation to the other. Perhaps we can think of ourselves, our bodies, as particles and as we interact with one another, our “wave functions” become entangled. In the quantum world as well as on the physical plane we are indelibly intertwined with the world we inhabit. We are also entangled with our ancestors, with our DNA, with the natural selection over generations that has determined our proclivities. We are entangled with particles far and wide. Distance does not destroy entanglement. The concept that an object can be altered, moved or changed without being physically touched by another object, despite that fact that they are separated by space is what quantum physicists called action at a distance. Albert Einstein famously and with great apprehension and doubt named the phenomenon spooky action at a distance.
Despite the fact that distance does not destroy entanglement, the condition of entanglement can be delicate. Even background disturbances can destroy the state. The quantum physicist Seth Loyd, who has done seminal work in the field of quantum computation, suggests that memories of entanglement can survive its destruction. He compares the effect to Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights: “the spectral Catherine communicates with her quantum Heathcliff as a flash of light from beyond the grave.”
The practice of sustained attention and connection functions in opposition to a culture that is endlessly interrupted with the narcissism of selfies and the bombardment of reports from the ongoing narrative of one’s life. The uninterrupted connection of the Viewpoints, which is indeed delicate and susceptible to background disturbances and interruptions, is not limited to intra-personal dynamics but includes relations to spatial and temporal planes.
Deliberate slowness, and the uninterrupted connection that can result, allow us to register multiple layers of time, history and motion. A number of significant contemporary artists are working successfully and forcefully within this field of slowness including Bill Viola, Olafur Eliasson, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Werner Herzog. Perhaps slowness has become a radical act in our culture. Perhaps sustained connection is also an act of tempering violent impulses. Patience and the deliberate engagement of delay can intensify our temporal and spatial experiences, and become a powerful artistic tool. The results can be powerful.