Ever since way back when Pavlov was studying stimulus/response and Skinner was torturing rats (my psych prof showed movies of it and gave us hell for laughing at the rats with hot-foot), we’ve known that information from the senses went somewhere in the brain, something happened to them, and then the nerves sent messages to the muscles or to each other about what to do. (“Jump, you little rat! Jump!”) But no one could figure out what it was happening there in the skull -- it was a black box. Now we know how to look into that box -- it has become a glass skull.
But all along, people who taught acting DID know what happened in there. The message came in from eyes, ears, skin or whereever; there was a moment when everything stopped. (Alvina Krause called it -- SLAP! -- Tim calls it “stop the world.”) A moment of realization, of evaluating, of decision. Then the response. It can be observed; it can be felt. But until recently it could not be seen among the neurons in action.
It was rhizomatous: a little complex of neurons sorted the sights, another sorted the sounds, and so on. Then they forwarded the sorted information to a place where it was weighed and possibly compared to things stored in the memory banks according to past sights, sounds, kinesthetic sensations, until it became a “gestalt.” This all happened in a flash, esp. if the amygdala marked it DANGER! And the brain said JUMP. By that time the jump had happened.
Or maybe it took a while, like overnight while the memory-sorting neuron complexes (from the front of the hippocampus to the back of the hippocampus) put this here and that there and like with like and threw out the trivia or nonsensical -- wait now, maybe that wasn’t nonsense after all. And the person dreamt, watching the traffic passing, hailing a cab. In the morning it was at the curb with the door standing open.
What’s interesting is that the most recent development -- the cutting edge of evolution -- is that not only can we see the other person stop/SLAP but we can tell from the response -- or maybe just the pause -- what it was that the rhizome neuron complexes were working on, realizing, deciding. And beyond that, (this is the secret of acting) -- that when we see someone working their way through this sequence, it is to us as though we had done it, too. “Vicarious,” they call it. You watch someone dance and your muscles, ever so faintly, imitate what you see.
Even more interesting -- and sometimes perilous -- is that we all have several aspects of ourselves inside and those rhizomatous neural complexes can put these part-puppets to good use, setting up conversations among them. You know the cartoon: an angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other. There can be a whole school of little critters swarming around, some tougher and more intense than others.
Partly they are a matter of stored experience (memory) and partly they are organized by feeling. Feel maternal? Is that you, mom? Feel powerful? 007 at your service. Walter Mitty might drop by with a few adventures. When Freud wanted you to repose on his couch and free-associate, he was hoping that your puppet show would activate and let him watch long enough to pick up clues about the puppeteer.
Jung had an idea you would draw on plot lines from the great classics. The contemporary Internal Family Therapy shrinks figured conversation would probably sound like the supper table. When my brother with the head trauma was looking for a cover story, he told us television plots, often courtroom tales. We so often see life as being on trial -- I suppose, for the crime of being human.
Alvina Krause’s “method” was to watch closely when an actor was “acting” and try to deduce which neuron complexes were doing what. She was very much aware that no two human beings have organized their brains the same way (after all, we are preschoolers when we set up our basic categories and who knows what has happened since then?) but she tried to know students well enough to have a good idea of what their “dashboard” conversations were like. One thought everything was an intellectual puzzle, another saw only wine and roses, and a third was shuttling from one thing to another without settling.
Over and over in her notes you’ll read, “I think what X is doing is trying too hard to . . .” Then she would try to devise something that would derail that unhelpful process, whatever it was, into something that worked. One of the funniest is the woman who was being so lyrical and poetic with her iambic pentameters that the sense left them. To get her feet back on the ground, Krause asked her to say “mashed potatoes” at the end of each line. That was the most ordinary, bland, unpoetic phrase Krause could think of. It worked. Suddenly the actress had her feet on the ground.
The riskiest was when an actor had gone off to cloud-cuckoo-land, some strangely dissociated parallel universe. She would resort to a slap, the kind that movie heroes used on hysterical movie heroines while commanding, “Snap out of it!” And then the heroine says, “Thanks. I needed that.” You’d never get away with that today. The main reason Krause got so close to her actors was so that she knew how to calibrate whatever she was doing, but there’s a total taboo on contact now.
Of course, the misfires and those impervious to such tricks simply left. We writers watched very closely indeed. Even though we were too -- what? -- to get on the stage. But for us the cast of characters inside has never stopped talking to each other. We can put it on a page rather than the stage.
The world comes at you: sun in the morning, fog at night; sounds of traffic and sounds of wind; taste of wine and crunch of bread; smell of a lover and reek of death; and in your glass skull you weave a story about it. Then -- wait, go back! I was wrong! It works better this other way. SLAP! Thanks, I needed that.
(Also posted at www.thesilvercomb.blogspot.com.)