My experience with Impro[v] (the book and the activity)

Back to the personal posts. It has recently come to my attention that historically I need to and excel at apprehending things in an intellectual fashion. (Part of the reason that I really value new concepts, they quite literally let me see more.)

In this essay I describe my recent experiences with improvisational theatre. The first, reading the book Impro, of which a review follows. The second, taking an Improv class,  of which a review follows. (The third, the intellectual apprehension is this essay.) Enjoy.


Impro review

Multiple authors I enjoy have praised Impro over the years. Also, two close friends who are enormously different recommended it. So after 2 years my brain decided to pay attention and I read it.

It wasn’t  mind blowing, which I expected from seeing various reviews over the years. In retrospect this seems an instance of the Seinfeld is unfunny effect: it is 40 years old, authors I like have read it a long time ago and so it has diffused through the worldview they espouse.

The book is divided into 5 parts: Notes on myself, Status, Spontaneity, Narrative Skills, and Masks and Trace.

The chapter on status was very, very rewarding although it hasn’t shaped my mind totally. (This is due to me having studied PUA analysis in the past and thus having some understanding of how to convey high status and what low status looks likes.)

Having said that , the book led me to *spontaneously* analyse interactions in status transactions terms a few times already. I would mentally translate every action into a status move. Including my own. This is incredible because I was blind to status moves I did in a non-purposeful fashion. Just for this the book is worth reading.

The chapter on Spontaneity was pretty good and all of it resonates at a very deep level.

Some meditation, a lot of therapy and introspection have led to various experiences of spontaneity that I identified. It has also led to dealing with “demons” of the obscene, psychotic, and religious tendencies, and after those have had their turn to show the vulnerable children. Yes, yes, yes, and yes, all that made perfect internal sense; even if Johnstone is describing it from the perspective of Improv and Theatre (None of which I had ever done then.).

The chapter on narrative skills was pretty great. He aims to explain that it seems that humans have some sort of story mechanism and you can take advantage of this to create stories. Things like reincorporation (reintegrating a piece, or closing an open end) activate the story mechanism. He also had several writing prompts. I tried one of them  and ended up with a short story I’m quite happy with.

I’m midway through trance masks and I got a much better understanding when I saw the videos. I assumed the masks were of the african tribal mask sort, but instead they are of the exaggerations of *human* faces sort. Keith uses the mask plus a mirror plus a person willing to take social responsibility to induce altered states of consciousness.


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Fig 1. No and yes, respectively.


Having dabbled in those, and having once looked at a mirror to see a demon, or a goat (in a dream) I totally feel how powerful the experience can be and how it can create trance states.

(See this for a video of how trance masks work)

Overall the book is excellent, in addition to the content, Keith has a splendid author voice. (Which makes me empowered to treat him on a first name basis.) The book has a *treasurable* characteristic – it is by an expert that throws observations at you, not theory. If it is the case that you have little to no knowledge on the area (as it was for me) you can connect to the observations by linking them to your experience, and by the end you used your experiences as a scaffold to build out your map in an area you had nothing. This is very, very rewarding. I suspect this is why many people enjoy the book.

(Although there might be other reasons. The book also prompted me to try out the exercises, to think about what it said and attempt to link it for inordinate amounts of time and to go on youtube and search for videos. Some books just prompt me to “read one word after the other until I read them all”. This might be due to the style of writing. Unclear, don’t know enough about writing, but it seems reasonable that different styles imprint different states that lead to different action likelihoods.)


Improv review

The book pumped me up (raised my Emotional Energy) enough to actually take a workshop. This was 2 days, 3 hours each over a weekend. One of the best decisions I ever made.

The professor guiding the seminar was excellent. He was what Johnstone refers as a status specialist – he could raise and lower his (and others) statuses at will. If he wanted to say something he would slightly alter his posture and look down on everyone and the room would fall silent. If he wanted everyone to relax he would laugh too much, and become goofy and everyone relaxed and started interacting instead of standing still paying attention. This is tough to describe but the effect was very vivid.

Further, it was rare for him to talk. He seemed to be focused on praxis on doing over talking, over logos. And so he wouldn’t. He would do and you would have to understand from trial and error. He would set up the group in an ellipse and do a movement and a sound. And you copied it and tried variations, and if those were legal he would let you stay in the ellipse, and if not you would be sent out.

One of the games was Zip-Zap-Boing. In this game you either say Zip and turn and point right or let, say Zap and turn and point to anyone but the people on your right or left, or you jump and say Boing to whomever sent you a Zip or Zap to send it back.

In the beginning people were upset when they lost and so they would loudly moan. But this “stole the energy off the stage” and so they stopped doing it over time, and what happened was brilliant: you could see a logic developing in the game, a tempo, a symphony of Zip-Zip-Zap-Zip-Zip-Zap that would be broken with a Boing and someone would exit. But the break would be correct, if you were seeing it from the outside it made sense from the overall picture, if not to the person that was surprised by it.

There are two very cool things about this game:

  1. You never win. There is no end. You just keep playing, and getting better, better reactions, better tempo, better symphonies, but no end. It is an infinite game.
  2. You must be empty. If you are thinking about you are going to do, then you will flinch too soon or too late and you will lose and exit the ellipse.

This second point is precisely what spontaneity is about. It reminded me of Wu Wei, which I have felt a few times. It’s not flow, or inner freedom, but a sense that things happen and things get done by you, but not that you are doing things. I can imagine that if a group keeps playing this game, then a shared ritual consciousness emerges.

Another game was the predator. One person is a predator, and they have to touch the others. If you get touched, you die. But just before getting touched you can yell out someone’s name. If you do, then that person becomes the predator. What ended up happening is that in the frenzy of running away people would call out people that were dead already, multiple people would be called, and so on. And then the game was interrupted and you were asked what was wrong. It was seldom the case that someone knew, although over time our awareness got better.

And awareness was another thing distinguishing the professor. He would know what you were doing even if he had his back turned to you. This was very freaky in the first hour and then it became OK.

Back to his approach. At some points he would talk. After we had done the praxis, then he would explain it referring technical terms from Aristotle Poetics, or scenes from the Illiad and Odyssey. So he would force you to understand by trial-and-error and then explain it with drama theory. It was brilliant.

A third game was the gibberish game. At some point he started talking german sounding words to me and I replied back in german. They weren’t words it was gibberish. And so I replied in gibberish. And it made sense. From the context, the body language, the cadence, the repetition of words – it started making sense, you knew what was meant.

This game was used to do a improv scene at the end of the second day. The setup was two best friends meeting after not having seen each other for 10 years, discovering they were living in the same city, and then discovering they were fanatical extremists of opposite sides of a cause.

It was overwhelming. Literally. There was a point of quiet recognition, two points of extreme happiness, an uncomfortable tension, and then a realization. After the realization there was a fight, and at some point I made a closed fist. My improv partner started crying out of anger and I couldn’t handle it. I had to exit to the backstage where I was shaking for 1 or 2 full minutes. Still unsure of what happened.

A highly recommended experience, if you can, go and do an improv workshop.


What comes after rationality? Adventure!

Before I asked “(…) [W]hat comes after rationality? Is it postrationality? What is post-formal operations like? What does transrationality look like?”

In this essay I start sketching out a path to answer this question. I first give away a bit of my personal history and the history of my interest in this question. I give a hypothesis of an answer. I then summarise a paper that explores that same hypothesis albeit in an isomorphic way. I finalise with an explanation of my motivation to answer this question.


Setting – A Short History

My historical tendency is to pursue a set of things which that hold a family resemblance but that I cannot put my finger into.

These comprise objective knowledge, certainty, scientific realism, cold analysis, intellect, rationality.

This interest culminated in the absorption of LW (minus the non-rationality parts). I kept going and pushing on rationality and as I dug into the literature I found out how it wasn’t nearly as uniform as I expected. At the same time I got pushed away from GOFAI – my natural inclination – into embodied cognition. I was surrounded by constructivists and cyberneticians. At the same time I was doing work on emotions, meditating a bunch, and reading up on levels of development.

And all these pushed me away from the LW-X-rationality (which I’m using as a handle to the things that share the family-resemblance above) and into narrative rationality. (Ribbonfarm being the prime online example.)

(But note that narrative rationality can be done in an analytic fashion, of which Nozick’s Invariance is an example. Nozick says “My own philosophical bent is to open possibilities for consideration. Not to close them. This book suggests new philosophical views and theses, and the reasons it produces for these are meant to launch them for exploration, not to demonstrate conclusively that they are correct. Similarly, my criticisms of some major competing theories or positions are not intended to refute them conclusively, merely to weaken them enough to clear a philosophical space in which the newly proposed views can breathe and grow.”)


Solution – A Hypothesis

And so I’ve been trying to figure out how to syncretise from these two attractors. A way forward is suggested by Vladimir:

“Unfortunately I don’t know how to switch someone over from the dangerous attractor of “narrative rationality” (basically, attachment to self-generated deep wisdom) to actual rationality.”

Why would you want to do this anyway? What we have in terms of “actual rationality,” as you call it, is often excellent for detecting bullshit, but it’s still largely impotent when it comes to generating interesting hypotheses and novel insight about many (if not most) interesting questions. In contrast, smart people who follow the “narrative” path will inevitably end up producing lots of nonsense in the process, but as long as you avoid getting carried away and take care to apply a bullshit filter to their output consistently, what remains will often contain otherwise unreachable gems of insight. Even when the “narrative” attractor lowers the average accuracy of beliefs of people who fall into it, the value of their output for a careful reader may still be higher than if they were restrained by more stringent intellectual standards.

My hypothesis is that narrative rationality works as a generator, whilst LW-X-rationality works as a selector. One creates, the other selects (for truth). Add retention and you have the recipe for the evolution of something.

I like this idea. I like how it vibes with what David said here: “For Bayesian methods to even apply, you have to have already defined the space of possible evidence-events and possible hypotheses and (in a decision theoretic framework) possible actions. The universe doesn’t come pre-parsed with those. Choosing the vocabulary in which to formulate evidence, hypotheses, and actions is most of the work of understanding something. Bayesianism gives you no help with that. Thus, I expect it predisposes you take someone else’s wrong vocabulary as given.” And by vibes I mean it is isomorphic. Narrative rationality is incredible for generating your own parsing and vocabulary, whilst lw-x-rationality allows you to select (by falsifying some stories).

Whilst this thinking was going on I found out someone that was living through the same dilemma, in a related, albeit different way.

Heylighen, attempting to unify the scientific (lw-rationality) and narrative (narrative rationality) modes of looking at the world proposed to do so by replacing “the fundamental metaphor “the universe is a clockwork mechanism”, by the metaphor “life is an adventure””.

This resonated so strongly it’s not even funny. Below I summarise the paper.


Life as adventure – unifying science and narrative


Whilst the scientific and narrative modes seem opposed – science trying to formulate objective, timeless, contextless laws, narrative describing a particular sequence of events happening to particular subjects in particular contexts – they both aim to “provide dependable knowledge, by formulating rules about how agents are supposed to behave in different circumstances”. That is, at a meta-level they both serve the function of “a guiding framework that helps us to act, to decide, and to understand the complex world we live in.”

The paper’s approach takes an agent view, after acknowledging that “there are context-dependent limits to knowledge (…) [which]  preclude the existence of an omniscient observer like the demon of Laplace, and therefore the possibility of predicting with certainty.”

(The author called these “horizons of knowability”. Simon and Gigerenzer talk about these a lot, although with the name of “bounded rationality.)

It also entails that “any realistic model of behavior will have to take into account uncertainty, mystery and surprise.” Following the Cybernetics and Complex Adaptive Systems paradigms it is show that agents cope effectively with uncertainty “by using regulation to counteract unforeseen disturbances and exploration to discover novel affordances.”



He uses navigation as the way to combine regulation, exploration and exploitation. Navigations is “setting out and following a course of action while taking into account any foreseen or unforeseen diversions.” A course of action is not “a predetermined trajectory but as an adventure, i.e. a goal-directed activity affected by unpredictable and often mysterious encounters.”

An agent trying to maximize its fitness will “apply a judicious combination of regulation (moving away from known disturbances), exploitation (moving towards known affordances) and exploration (moving into the unknown). Together, these steering mechanisms determine the process of navigation.”

This conceptualisation of navigation is consonant with  Campbell’s [1949] analysis of the hero’s journey, the “basic storyline for all myths, legends and fairy tales: the hero (agent) in a quest (search) for a magical boon (fitness enhancing resource) explores a mysterious world (uncertain environment), having to overcome difficult trials (disturbances), while sometimes receiving unexpected aid or making surprising discoveries (affordances).”

This “agent’s goal-directed navigation through an environment that throws up unforeseen challenges and opportunities may be likened to a quest or search.”

“Exploration means venturing into the unknown with the intention of discovering new information, resources, opportunities, or—most generally— affordances. It implies a course of action that is moving away from what is foreseeable (what we will later call “prospect”), and towards what is not (what we will call “mystery”).” The difference between what is foreseeable and what is not follows from the notion of “horizons of knowability”.

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Mystery allows one to experience “the anticipation of mystery. Literary examples of the sentiment are readily found in the genre of magical realism [Zamora & Faris, 1995], which may be exemplified by authors such as Franz Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez and Haruki Murakami. Stories in this genre typically describe ordinary, realistic courses of action that are gradually mixed up with strange, seemingly inexplicable events and coincidences—as if some –  magical realm is intruding into the everyday world. This generates step-by-step a sense of mystery. However, the mystery is rarely formulated explicitly, and never truly resolved, thus sustaining a “magical” atmosphere impervious to rational analysis.”

“More generally, a strong excitement, feeling of freedom and sense of adventure is created by the sensation of movement along an irregular terrain, so that the vista continuously changes, and things that were hidden (mystery) come into plain view (prospect), while those that were clearly to be seen (prospect) disappear again behind the horizon (mystery). This sensation is efficiently exploited in many computer games, where the gamer can steer a car, motorcycle or a running “avatar” through a virtual, 3-dimensional landscape containing plenty of surprises. This sensation may also explain the intense pleasure that people can experience while hiking through forests and hills, or driving a motorcycle or car along a scenic, winding road. This joyful experience can be seen as an instance of flow: a feeling of total absorption into an activity that is accompanied by a sense of being in control and the vanishing of all anxiety, doubt and self-consciousness [Csikszentmihalyi, 1990]. People are likely to experience flow when the following conditions are met: • their activity has clear goals; • they receive immediate feedback on the actions they perform. • the degree of difficulty or challenge of the task remains in balance with their level of skill. The first two rules express the essence of the cybernetic paradigm of regulation, while the third one implicitly adds the exploration necessary to find a new challenge (affordance or disturbance) when the present one has been met.” These three rules together add up to the “flow-producing dynamic of mysteries”

Whereas in the Newtonian worldview the horizon of knowability had the parameter “prospect” either at zero (system) or at infinity (Scientist/god/laplace demon), the “life is an adventure” perspective is a generalises the Newtonian worldview by allowing this parameter to  “vary continuously, from zero towards infinity (but without ever reaching the latter limit).

“By turning the constant “prospect” into a variable, the ontology of adventure brings the creativity, uncertainty and adaptivity of life, mind and society back into the scientific modelling paradigm”



“The agent’s course is visualized as a trail left behind by the agent’s movements across the virtual space. This makes it possible to examine a course of action both in “narrative mode” as a real-time succession of movements, and in “scientific mode” as a fixed trajectory. ” A single run  “can be seen as a virtual adventure, idiographically describing the things happening to a specific agent in a specific context. However, when a large number of such unique runs have been generated (differing in the values of random diversions or the initial state of the agent), it becomes possible to perform a statistical analysis of the outcomes, in order to discover possibly invariant “laws” that nomothetically apply to all “adventures”.” Such a series of simulations might “find out that agents who use a particular system of rules are more fit—in the sense of successfully exploiting affordances and avoiding disturbances and thus surviving—than those following different rules [Gershenson, 2004].”

“The formulation of such “rules of behavior” is the implicit goal of both narrative and scientific worldviews. The typical function of myths, fairy tales and fables is to teach the audience various rules of good behavior—both in the sense of moral and ethical values (…), and in the more pragmatic sense of problem-solving strategies (e.g. get informed well before undertaking a major enterprise, exercise in order to build physical strength). These rules are taught by illustrative stories in which the heroes who follow these rules fare well, while those who do not get in trouble. The scientific worldview eschews any notion of moral values, formulating rules or laws as “the way agents behave” rather than “the way agents ought to behave”. But an accurate description of how things tend to behave is easily and naturally translated into a strategy for making things behave more effectively, as the endless technological and social applications of science illustrate. In that sense, as many observers have pointed out, science is much less “neutral” or “value-free” in its implications than it theoretically claims to be: the neutral observation that some phenomenon A (e.g. smoking) tends to cause some other phenomenon B (e.g. cancer), where B is generally considered to have negative (or positive) value, will automatically lead to a negative (positive) evaluation of A”



Mark has written: “On the one hand, it’s fine to read stories backwards into your life, to selectively edit and mould your past, to give it a coherent narrative. The literature shows that humans do this. And that’s probably healthy and necessary, if those stories don’t get used for future mis-predictions.

What I’m interested in here, though, is us living stories as they’re happening. I want to live *in* a story, that I’m writing as I go, and I want to live it right through the triumphant climax. The longer and bigger the story, the more satisfying.

Yes, reality is indifferent. Yes, reality is incidental chaos. Yes, the story is the property of my map not a property of the territory. But heroically shaping reality is fun, and painful, and gratifying. When you care you can get hurt, but you’re only alive if you care.”

And I’m like “Yes, exactly, I want this.” And this clarifies my interest in rationality, my interest in science, my interest in narrative.

My life is an adventure, of which I’m both hero and writer. Whilst on the one hand I want to and do intensely live it, on the other I want to have knowledge of the tropes that my story is running through and the universe my story is running in, so that I can craft the story I want.