Thursday, February 25, 2010

An experiment to see our brains at work

Here's an experiment to explore what A.R.Luria, the Russian neurophysiologist identified as right brain (simultaneous) and left brain (successive) processing.

I use Soundball, my favorite Improv routine, as a warm up for my interactive workshops. To get the dopamine and the creativity flowing. And to observe how our brains work.

I begin by forming and throwing an imaginary ball to a  member of the audience, and make a sound like "whee" or "whooo". She catches the ball with the same sound, then throws the ball to another person, with a different sound. And we keep the process going for as long as possible, with as few mistakes as possible.

At the beginning, chaos reigns! People become frozen, unable to move. Some catch the ball and forget what to do. Others throw the ball to no one in particular, so no one catches it. Some correct their mistakes. Some make the same sound coming and going. Others don't make a sound atall.

Then, as we learn what to do, our performances improve and soon the whole room is synchronized perfection. But if I start too many new Soundballs going too early, it all fizzles out.

It seems like we can't pay attention to too many moving targets at the same time.

Usually, after a few minutes, our collective performances improve, even when we never get to throw the ball in rehearsal. We learn by imitation, via Broca's area of the brain, just above the left ear, where the same mirror neurons fire off when you watch and perform an activity. So, watching is almost as good as doing.

Last week I ran a session for about 90 people. I was in a hurry, and started too many Soundballs going without enough practice or feedback.  The result. Chaos. Too much diverted attention.

The problematic result started me wondering if practicing in small groups would help. Or co-visualizing success could be even better, in the same way that athletes practice winning by rehearsing their performance in their "mind's eye".

So here's an experiment and some feedback questions to test this theory:

1. The facilitator explains how Soundball works. Create an "imaginary ball" with both hands. About 12 inches in diameter and demonstrate to the room the purpose of the game. You throw the ball with a sound like "yabba dabba do", they receive the ball with the same sound as the sender, then send the ball to another person with a new sound, such as "Wowee".
2. Experiment 1 - Ask the participants to observe their performances. Start a Soundball in one part of the room. Then start another somewhere else.
3. Feedback - What happened when people began to receive and send soundballs?
4. Feedback - What explanations can you offer for the success or failure of the exercise?
5. Experiment 2 - Ask the group to divide into threes to practice Soundball. One person in the triad starts the Soundball, each takes it in turns to receive with the same sound, send with a different sound, and keep the exercise going for 2-3 minutes. Observe your performances.
6. Feedback - What happened when people practised Soundballs in threes.
7. Experiment 3 - Now repeat Experiment 1 with the whole group. Again observe your performances.
8. Feedback - What happened when people began to receive and send soundballs?
9. Feedback - What explanation can you offer for the success or failure of the exercise?
10.Experiment 4 - Ask the group to divide into threes, then all close their eyes and imagine the group of three playing Soundball according to the rules, until they are mentally performing the task perfectly. After 2-3 minutes practice, repeat Experiment 1.
11. Feedback - Thinking about our performance, when did we perform poorly and what was happening at the time?
12. Feedback - Thinking about our performance, when did we perform really well and what was happening at the time?
13. Theory development: Explain what was/not happening in terms of left brain processing (simultaneous processing, dealing with novel situations), right brain processing (automatic learned routines, successive processing), and mirror neuron processing (empathy, imitation) for each experiment.

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