By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation
I’m late to the game on Starlee Kine’s fantastic podcast, Mystery Show, which debuted last spring and will hopefully return for another season on the Gimlet Media podcast network. But listening to the first episode as I drove into work this week, I was struck by its connection to a discourse that has become thematic in our conversations around improvisational practice and the ways in which our work improves focus, drives increased cognition and promotes a broad swath of empathetic behaviors.
In the podcast, Starlee investigates mysteries unaided by the use of the internet. In the debut episode, Case #1 The Video Store, she attempts to solve a mystery presented by her friend Laura who many years ago signed up to rent a movie at a neighborhood video store, only to return the next night and the video store was closed. There was paper covering the windows, signage was gone and she could see through the paper that the store had been completely stripped. It was empty.
Starlee goes down some blind alleys, but is ultimately introduced to the former owner of the video store. Here’s the thing, the store didn’t just close overnight. There were signs of it’s imminent closing and the shelves were gradually de-stocked.
It’s not that Starlee’s friend Laura was lying. It’s that Laura didn’t see it.
And this happens all the time.
When I got to the office I email’d Nick Epley at the University of Chicago. I’ve written about Nick’s book Mindwise and he had been telling our group at Second City Works that there is a ton of research showing how much individuals over-estimate their own ability to accurately perceive other people, situations and – generally speaking – the world around them#.
Nick sent me this video:
Nick also recommended I get the book The Invisible Gorilla by Dan Simons and Chris Chabris (it’s ordered). When I was looking at a synopsis of the book, this paragraph popped out at me:
“Again and again, we think we experience and understand the world as it is, but our thoughts are beset by everyday illusions. We write traffic laws and build criminal cases on the assumption that people will notice when something unusual happens right in front of them. We’re sure we know where we were on 9/11, falsely believing that vivid memories are seared into our mind with perfect fidelity. And as a society, we spend billions on devices to train our brains because we’re continually tempted by the lure of quick fixes and effortless self-improvement.”
And this all made me think about the foundations of improvisational practice. How we spend so much time with our beginning students pushing them to get on their feet and find a point of focus that is outside of themselves. Exercise after exercise; game after game – we are physically and mentally unsticking individuals from their normal state of cognitive bias. Once unstuck, we are then giving them practice in empathetic communication and in being in and “other’s focused” state.
We are selling glasses. We are providing sight.
The importance of this can’t be understated. Improvisation recognizes that miscomprehension is the normative state of things. This allows us to make up some really funny and fantastic comedy, but it also gives its practitioners an incredibly valuable skill: the skill to see what other’s are missing; the skill to work with nuance; the skill to excel despite our collective disadvantage.