Brain Salad Surgery

Many thanks to GAIAC and AE2O in Porto for organizing Rainbow of Desires workshops in Portugal last month.

There are times in workshops where I find myself rambling on about the newest discoveries in cognitive neuroscience and have to stop myself from going down the rabbit hole and get on with the ‘processes’ which are so much better a learning tool than stumbling around in a desert of words. Nevertheless, the findings of eminent Portuguese neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and others are I think very relevant to Theatre of the Oppressed, and to our understanding of perception, will and action (amongst other things).

In approaching the subject I related two stories which help me to think about some of these discoveries. The first concerns the making of a salad.

I was making a salad and was rummaging in the salad container at the bottom of the fridge to find out what ingredients I had to hand. There was a lot of lettuce and spinach and under that a small plastic tray of radishes. As you do, I squeezed one to test for freshness. This radish was mushy. Yuk! There was an instant physical and emotional reaction of disgust and revulsion. I dont recall having tasted a rotten radish but my imagination, nevertheless, conjured from my memory of a sensory image of ‘radish’ and combined this with experiential knowledge of food at the appropriate state of decomposition. This sensory image even before I was conscious of it, had initiated a physical reaction in the mouth and on the tongue to simulate what would happen if I put this radish in my mouth.

Curious to justify my reaction with a closer look, I removed the tray from the salad compartment and to my surprise found that the radish was in fact a small tomato, among the radishes. Its slight squishiness was completely acceptable for such a vegetable. It was edible and non-threatening to my homeostasis and my physiology returned from amber to green alert. My brain, or I had made a category error and it got me thinking what other errors could I be making, ones that one day, in a flash, I might discover.

What assumptions am I making? What phenomenon do I take for granted without even considering the possibility of challenging their veracity? In a way, through the Rainbow of Desires techniques we are reaching deep into the salad compartment of the psyche and pulling out the various vegetable personages to sort out which are passed their use by date and which are fresh and taste good. Brain Salad Surgery anyone!

My second story relates to a time when my ex-partner would prod me in bed at night and tell me I was snoring. It became such a custom that I was able on some level of consciousness to study this procedure and noticed something very strange.

I wouldnt fully wake up from the prod and the announcement of the snoring, but my mind would trace sluggishly through a lexicon of words similar to snoring snorting, stroking, snorkelling, smoking; tying to make sense not of what it meant so much as what I should do in relation to this solemn word that was piercing the dark night. What was the appropriate action to take? What function did I have in relation to the expectation enfolded in the word? One after the other, in serial processing, word sounds would present themselves as possible matches to the sound I was hearing&skiing, snooker, soldering,

The curious thing is that I never arrived at a match, or an understanding of the word. I would either fall back asleep or turn over and go back to sleep. The second response being the correct action because apparently then I stopped snoring. In the case of the second response I acted before I knew why I was acting, in fact without knowing why I was acting even after having acted.

My theory is that in my semi-conscious state my social self had not been awakened so no context and therefore no meaning could be constructed for the sound or was even sought for the sound, however my core self was awake and in the interest of preserving equilibrium, much like Pavlovs dog, was presenting a conditioned response (occasionally). My social self did not wake up because that would have meant fully being awake so the core self was delegated the role like an electronic device on standby.

That the social self did not wake at all meant that there was no ascribing of cause and effect to an individual who chose to turn on his side. There was no centre of narrative gravity that reasoned and justified after the act. Brain imaging has revealed that something called top-down processing is happening all the time in our brain. There is a mechanism that transposes the order of events to make it appear as if the self had sanctioned or premeditated an action that had already been enacted by the body before any reasoning had been engaged.

How much of our actions in the waking day is a conditioned response which we play back to ourselves as an act of our heroic will? Is this a category error which we can verify? How do we squeeze that radish?

Im not saying we are zombies, although to some extent we are asleep. But, as mentioned in previous posts, we do have the capacity to bring awareness to these mechanisms and catch top down processing in the act. To catch the Wizard of Oz controlling the handles that operate the pyrotechnics of consciousness, even as he insists that we pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Rainbow of Desires, by embodying our mental images is in some way deconstructing the conditioning, decoding the enigma of our behaviour, and in its way making a revolution of sorts in the psyche by exposing the top down processing and making a case for bottom up processing&to listen to the body more.

Belgrade masterclass

Last week I was in Belgrade, Serbia at the request of Cynefin project officer Aleksandra Markovic, to give a masterclass to Theatre of the Oppressed Jokers. During conversation before the training about where the emphasis should lie there was an interest in Cop in the Head techniques. These are Augusto Boals methods for addressing internal oppressions those spectres within us that inhibit our ability to achieve what we desire.

Boal is always careful to make clear that the cop might be in the head but its headquarters are outside. In other words, these psychological obstacles originate from what has happened to us, what people have told us in the past in social conditioning. The workshop activities under this heading help manifest these oppressions in the aesthetic space of the stage in order to rehearse and witness from others (who intervene in the action just like Forum Theatre) better approaches to dealing with them.

There is always a lot of curiosity about these methods from those who have been trained in the external methods of TO. Often they will have facilitated a workshop where a group come up with an oppression that is patently internal often depicted by scenes where actors represent thoughts going around the head of the protagonist; and will not be sure how to progress with this model.

The interesting thing for me with Cops in the Head work is that there is very few contexts in which it can be applied legitimately in our society and I think that is a terrible shame. I remember while doing the training with Augusto and Adrian Jackson back in the early 90s, there would always be a Dramatherapist in the group complaining that it wasnt safe. Boal would sometimes retort

You want to be safe, go and lie down in a dark quiet place and do nothing. With every action there is risk involved. One of the most dangerous things that can happen to you is to fall in love.

I might be wrong but the feeling I have is that fear has won and those occasions where you can explore this work outside of the therapist/patient power dynamic of the clinical setting is rare indeed, and precisely because of that dynamic any Cop in the Head that happens in a clinical setting is in my opinion suspect, integrated as it is with a whole theoretical model that is antithetical to the precepts of TO. I would include psychodrama in this category as well, which has a passing resemblance to Cops in the Head.

Perhaps what is needed is some kind of common ground practices which segue between the internal and external aspect of oppression and this is what I explored with the jokers in Belgrade. Something that inspired me to do this was a line in a poem by Rumi I happened to remember the week before.
You must ask for what you really want

It occurred to me that perhaps our oppressions, by keeping us from what we desire, relieve us from having to articulate precisely what we really really want. So immediately while there is a will to overcome oppression there is a counter-will which might be a bit worried that becoming liberated might lead to feeling very lost indeed! Im reminded here of a friend who made a living as a journalist rallying weekly in a column against the ultra-right governor of the county. When the governor died in a car crash he was made bereft of that which had earned him a steady income.

That is why I am coming to wonder whether rather than first articulating our oppression in TO workshops we should articulate what we really want and map out the obstacles between where we are now and where we want to be. By doing this, the oppression that was most obvious the stock oppression that helps us identify who we are, might not be the one to address. But the more subtle conditioning that is manifest as a relationship between cops in the head and the continuous reinforcement from outside of those cops from circumstances we attract precisely because we have those cops.

In the fantastic book Rainbow of Desires which for my money best articulates the theoretical basis for TO, Boal proposes three hypothesis on which lie the effectiveness of TO as a social and personal intervention. Ill paraphrase these three in order so that I can add another three hypothesis which I believe also relevant and which direct the way I apply TO.

The first hypothesis Boal calls Osmosis how conditioning permeates society and the individual; the second is Metaxis, which is that truly wonderful capacity that humans have of being in two places at the same time, the stage and wherever the shared imagination dictates a moor in ancient Scotland, the Parthenon or the living room of a dysfunctional family; and the third is Analogical Induction, which distinguishes TO from Therapy by the action facilitated by the Joker of moving from the particular or personal to the general or social – finding the generic mechanisms of oppression or what Zizek calls implicate laws, rather than delving into the addictive and distracting narrative of an individuals suffering.

The hypothesis which I would add are –

Multi-Valence Boal hints at this when under the hypothesis of Analogical Induction he says that TO is not about interpretation but about offering multiple points of reference, but I think this only scrapes the surface of the underlying hypothesis or paradigm which TO promotes through this pluralistic stance. That is that perception is participative. Just like ancient Hebrew and Islamic text omitted vowels&so reading was an act of interpretation depending on where you placed the vowels and which vowels you placed in effect where and how you breathed. In this same way the language of TO is a divergent rather than convergent signifier. It opens up multiple possible interpretations rather than closing them down into something conclusive, and what is more all interpretations are simultaneously true. In this way TO is a celebration of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity. The simple action of making it permissible for participants to project creatively with the proviso that everyone is aware that it is only a projection can liberate different ways of perceiving our human condition: a meta-cognition if you like that thoughts are not facts, that we make the world we live in first my the act of perception.

Proprioception Again, Boal hints at the idea that in TO the protagonist is observing and being observed. Through Analogical Induction there is this essential distancing or alienation effect from your own predicament, enough to be not too emotionally caught up that you are able to seek the underlying social cause of the personal difficulty. But I think again this is only hinting at an underlying paradigm which lightly held allows one to access a more fundamental activity going on in a TO workshop.

The great scientist David Bohm talked of how while we have physical proprioception, that is that we know what our body is doing, we do not have psychological proprioception. We are not aware that we are indeed creating the world in which we live: that it is not something that is just happening to us. Psychological proprioception happens when we catch sight of the whole mechanism by which we are perpetuating our suffering and this happens when we observe the observer; that is when we witness the primary mechanism of oppression which is the illusion of the separation between what I observe and is observing.

Communitas This concept, borrowed from anthropology and coined by Victor Turner to describe a property or quality brought about by people sharing an experience of liminality that is where the osmosis Boal mentions is disrupted and conditioning falls away to reveal basic presence. Put simply concepts of having and doing are overwhelmed by just being. Communitas is the resulting quality of relationship between people experiencing this together, this shared space-less timelessness: and this is the glue which makes community.

It is my contention that TO can and does create Communitas through the actions of Multi-valence and Proprioception and this has an intrinsic value which augments the political, social or personal development ambitions of TO and alone is worth the price of the ticket.