Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Believe with Your Body

As a past president of Winston-Salem Writers (at 163 members, this group may be the largest local writing group in the country) I've been asked what I thought of a board member as a possible future president.

My reply was, "She's heavily corseted." I wasn't sure exactly what I meant until I saw a TED video last week. That speaker reminded me of the possible president, and I got to watch her for twenty minutes and analyze why she was so offputting.

What she had to say was worthwhile enough for me to forward the link to someone. Her delivery, however, led me to believe she wasn't personally trustworthy. She was eloquent, smiling pleasantly, evidently a practiced public speaker, but she came off as a phoney.

Because she was involved in what she was saying only from the neck up. She was indeed a talking head, completely disengaged from her body.

We tend to think that our beliefs are in our minds but, unless we're also believing with our emotions and our bodies, we're not believable.  

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Body Memory vs. Mental Memory

Academic sociologists have been getting a lot of press lately about their research into the value of appearing confident or powerful in interviews or business meetings. Sitting in a confident position and/or speaking with a powerful voice produce measurably positive effects.

In the voice study, one group of research subjects were instructed to remember a time when they felt confident or powerful; another group were told to think of a time when they had less power and status. Another group listened to recordings of the subjects reading the same material and were able to correctly identify which were the most powerful 72% of the time.

Amazing! Perhaps more amazing that these academics evidently have never heard of Stanislavsky's acting methods, or have never realized that this is what actors do.

The published result: If you really relive a powerful moment in your mind, your body reacts as if you really did have power.

But these results are not body "reactions." When we have an experience of power, our emotions respond first, our bodies second, our minds third. Our cells remember that moment, our muscles remember that moment.

And it's our bodies that will retain the memory most accurately and recall it most efficiently. An earlier study that asked subjects to write about the time they felt powerful before going into an interview found that the effect faded over time.

I use a different method in which the effect doesn't fade, but strengthens over time. (Chapter 6 in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer.) Mental memory can shift and change, acquiring different nuances and meanings, but body memory seems to remain stable.

I stumbled on this idea by chance: I had stopped performing during the last few years of a "Gaslight" marriage in which I had lost all confidence in my mind - in fact, had become convinced I was crazy. Shortly after my divorce I was asked to sing again. As I walked through a pair of swinging doors onto the stage, I felt my posture immediately change, a change so complete that I thought, "What the hell just happened to me?"

After the performance, when I had time to analyze what had happened, and to shift back and forth between the body on one side of the doors and the body that appeared on the other side, I recognized the latter as my "star body," a posture I had not used for many years. I had never consciously developed that posture, so no mental memory was involved. But my body remembered.  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Body Language

Beginning performers often ask, "What do I do with my hands?" They've suddenly become aware that they have a couple of appendages hanging off their arms, or tightly clutched in front of them.

I guide them through a few exercises until their hands are connected to their backs, at about waist level, where gesture naturally begins. "Now," I ask, "what do your hands want to say?"

Our bodies do want to get into the act, if we're connected to them. And if we're not restraining them with such mental projections as "I'll look foolish."

Physical communication is primal. Babies universally respond in the same way to outside stimuli with their bodies. They shudder, they spit out a nipple with disgust, their faces redden, their arms wave before they utter a sound. My grandson, three and a half years old when he was adopted from a Chinese orphanage, could not speak or understand oral language, but he'd created his own sign language.

So it's likely that humans developed sign language before spoken language. When Europeans first came to this country, Indian tribes were still using at least 65 different sign languages to trade and communicate with other tribes.

If communication is a human necessity, and if we are born with the means of physical communication, why don't we recognize the value of using our bodies to communicate when we become adults?


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What's normal?

I had lunch with an artist friend last week. We caught each other up on what our holidays had been like - hers having included her first husband (for the children's sake) as well as her second - and then we got to the deeper stuff: our obsessive making of art, our frustration when we couldn't find the right way into a painting or a story.

She said, "I'm afraid that, if I let myself go in my paintings, everyone will know how crazy I am."

This is not a crazy woman. She's more kind than I am, more generous to her first husband's current wife than I would be, more level-headed.

So I've been thinking this week about how and why, without a psychiatric diagnosis, so many of us define ourselves as crazy. We must be measuring ourselves against a baseline that either we or the DSM have labeled normal, and gauging where we fall on the sanity continuum.

But measurement of and establishing a norm for the nonphysical is tricky.

Several decades ago I was asked to give the keynote address at a women's retreat. A shocking request, for the topic was sex. What could I, whose sexual past was so far from what I considered normal, possibly say? I began my research by contacting groups that worked with survivors of child abuse and those who worked with rape victims. At that time, no one had aggregated the statistics for both groups of women but, even allowing for some overlap, the numbers were shocking. The vast majority of women in this country had experienced sex as violence, with the concomitant feelings of powerlessness and guilt.

Which meant that all the psychological tests that had been developed, and the norms for female sexual behavior and attitudes that had been established, had to have been based primarily on research subjects who had been victimized.

So what's normal?    

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

More Creativity Questions

Vicki's comment raises new questions about creativity.

Is creativity always play? An electrical engineer told me about the regimen he'd established when he encountered a problem at work. Before he went to bed, he restated the problem, then purposefully thought no more about it until the next morning when he was shaving. Then he opened his mind to whatever thoughts arose, with the rule that he would discard no solution, no matter how crazy or unrelated it seemed to be. Being an engineer, he had established strict rules for problem-solving, but he had learned to abandon all the rules - those he'd been taught, those that had worked in the past - while he shaved.

At the time, he was working on a higher-definition camera for television. To create is to bring something new into being. So it makes sense that, at some point in the development of that camera, the rules that governed how any previous camera worked had to be changed or discarded.

It's at that moment when we abandon what we know (or have been taught) is true, that the creative breakthrough comes. And it's scary.

When I was developing my vocal method, it occurred to me one day that everything I'd been taught, everything I'd ever read about a singer's breathing had to be wrong: we don't have voluntary control of the abdominal diaphragm. I immediately panicked: Who am I to dispute accepted knowledge? I spent the following two weeks trying to disprove my new theory, before I could begin to develop the scientific basis for a different way of breathing.

I've seen that scary moment often enough in students to believe that it may be a necessary component in creativity. The day they walk into a session with "I can't," "I'll never be able to," is breakthrough day - the day that they abandon what they know or have assumed to be true and float free of their old rules.

Yes, Vicki's right that their immediate responses are hope and joy. But change is frightening. Taking that next step into freedom is a challenge.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Creativity Questions

Some chicken-or-egg questions:

Is creativity a human need? New archeological evidence -a 100,000-year-old animal-bone paintbrush, 75,000-year-old shells with drilled holes for use as beads, a 300,000-year-old flint hand ax - tells us that creativity was a part of Paleolithic life.

Does creativity satisfy an individual need? That is, art for art's sake? Or because we're essentially a curious species?

Or does creativity satisfy the need to communicate? Is communication the basic need, with every creative act or idea a tool for communication?

If we know creativity was active in the Stone Age, has it been necessary to individual survival? Or to the survival of the species? We know that humans are like birds in their inherent ability to sing. The vocal mechanisms are similar; brain activity while singing is similar. We assume, then, that humans first sang for the same "reason" as birds sing - courtship. After the recent discovery, in both Indonesia and South Africa, of pre-historic axes that are too fragile or too heavy to be utilitarian, similar assumptions have been made. Perhaps they were created to demonstrate skill to potential mates.

Whatever the answer to any of these questions, doesn't it make sense to foster creativity? To create an educational system based on creativity?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Understanding Shame

I have a student (I'll call him Hal) who often triggers an essay or blog. His lesson yesterday was no exception. Hal had completed the score for an indie film. The director, producer, et al, were more than satisfied, they were thrilled. They thought his work would raise their film to a new level.

Then he said he had a piece for chamber quartet that he thought was really, really good, and he wished he knew how to break into "the system" to get it played. But he was "an outsider," didn't have the right credentials, his music degree wasn't even in composition, etc., etc. I gave him half a dozen suggestions about where to send the piece. He repeated all the reasons why no one would pay any attention to it, and added that all those thoughts were no doubt due to his "superiority complex," because he thought his quartet was so new, so different, that it would change music in a positive way.

A perfect example of what Brene Brown talks about in one of her TED talks (, and what I've written about in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer. Except that Brown doesn't seem to realize, at least in that lecture, that the shame affect is positive for our well-being. According to Sylvan Tomkins' affect theory, shame is an innate physiological mechanism that, when we get too excited - when our breathing and heart rates become too elevated - returns our bodies to a more normal state.

What happens when we perform  - and I consider that to be any time we expect to be judged - we get excited, anxious. In Brown's term, vulnerable. "Too" excited, and shame is triggered and, along with it, our entire humiliation biography. We know we've crossed over that line between excitement and shame when we begin to hear the negative thoughts about ourselves or our work running around in our heads.

After I told Hal that what he had just said made no sense at all (We have a long relationship, so I used stronger terms and banged my head melodramatically on the music stand.), I ran through the above explanation. He'd heard it all before in a different context, but hadn't related it to his composing.

Brown is right that "vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." The reality, for Hal, is that his composition is not likely to change the world of music. A lot of people, string quartets included, are afraid of change. So if he takes his excitement - what he had called his "superiority complex" - down a notch, all those negative thoughts will fade away. He'll be able to market his piece in a clear-headed manner.

Listening to shame is a good idea, if we understand what shame is really telling us.