Getting to Yes, And

Behavioral Science Meets Improvisation

Guest

Nicholas Epley

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We have an improv game called one word story – where we have groups of people tell a story one word at a time – you would suggest that this is an amazing human feat, but also one we might fundamentally misunderstand.

“It reveals just how fluent our ability is to generate explanations, stories and verbal descriptions. We are remarkably good at coming up with stuff and stuff that make sense. Stuff that is relatively coherent and natural and fluent. And that itself is an interesting metaphor for how we think of our own mind because often when we’re, for example, confronted with a question, a query or a interruption like, ‘why did you do this?’ ‘Why did you think that?’ Or, ‘what was your justification for all of these things?’ We in rather can come up with an explanation and out pops an answer and if we’re interrupted or pushed again, we will pop out with another answer. And that very fluency can give us the impression, when we’re thinking about ourselves that we’re  just reporting what’s in our head. You asked me why I did something, I report and you asked me again and I report again. And that I think is a very interesting illusion.”

So you use many examples to make the claim that there really is no such thing as unconscious thought – which seems like a radical claim?

“We mentioned the space of psychology before Freud. No one had really ever had the idea that alongside the appellant flow of experience that we we are aware of, there might be underneath some sort of a separate system, perhaps a another flow of a much larger, deeper world which is running a little autonomously but we’re not aware of. So the idea of unconscious thought is a very recent idea.”

In writing about how the mind improvises, you use a lovely phrase that we are ‘improvising as tradition.’ What does that mean to you?

“What is happening is that you are taking snippets of improvisation that you’ve done in the past,  and you’ve heard in the past from other people, and your transforming those into the present. The jazz improvisations are quite well modeled. I think comedy-improvisation is the same and they’re not creating something out of nothing, they are creating something by transformation of all the things they thought before. But the things that transformed, we adjust the thing that  we are creating now. It’s like you’re a coral reef where each new polyp is growing and building on all the polyps before to create a complex, rich structure. But it’s not that there’s a framework underneath the polyps which is somehow guiding them. It’s just one little polyp at a time; one little tiny creature building on the next, building on the next. And so I think the idea that people are traditions, is to see everything we do as a tradition of improvisation.”

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