What I Think About When I Think About Not Thinking
“I think, therefore I am.” René Descartes
“I think too much, therefore I am too much.” Del Close
Improvisers are encouraged not to “think.” And of course, thinking, as in – “Am-I- brilliant-am-I-stupid-do-they-love-me-do-they-hate-me?” is a real distraction and a drag. But in fact, the brain, from a scientific perspective, is always accessing data, combining bits of information, making decisions, performing these tasks both consciously and unconsciously, thinking fast and thinking slow.
Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book “Thinking Fast and Slow” divides our mental processes into two types: “System 1 is automatic, effortless, often unconscious, and associatively coherent . . . System 2 is controlled, effortful, usually conscious, tends to be logically coherent, rule-governed.”
In 2012, philosopher Massimo Pigluicci wrote “Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life.” In it, he discusses how true expertise requires switching from the most automatic and faster thinking (Kahneman’s System 1) to the slower, harder work of deeper focus thinking (System 2).
Here are a couple examples of how two improv giants, Paul Sills and Del Close, challenged their actors to slow down and do the hard work.
The hugely talented Avery Schreiber told me that Paul made the cast, as one of the final rehearsals before opening a show, do the entire show in SLOW MOTION. When I asked about the actors’ response, Avery told me “After about the first hour we wanted to strangle him! But, in the end, we found moments in that slow-motion run-through that made the show much, much better.”
In an interview earlier this year in Mike Sachs’ “Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers”, writer/director Adam McKay references Daniel Kahneman’s theory of mind when talking about working with Del in the 1990’s at iO Chicago. Del would make you “go to your third thought. When you’re onstage, your first thought is knee-jerk. Your second thought is usually okay, but not great. Del would make you stay in a scene until you found your third thought, which was a little above and beyond what most other teachers would suggest.”
With focused improv practice (Viola Spolin referred to “the discipline of play”), the space between “first thought” and “third thought” can be brought immeasurably close. Switching between Systems 1 and 2 can be almost instantaneous. Individuals working together at that level tap into “GROUP MIND.” They are thinking as one. And that thinking is manifest as an environment where imagination turns immediately into action. Now that’s a system!