The Human Balancing Act

Rope Walking, Science and the Human Balancing Act

young d on a rope

This is me 25 years ago … and I’m still doing the same thing.

Have you ever had to justify spending time standing on a rope to someone who doesn’t get it? … your parents? Or, in my case …. my kids.
Let’s start this by saying that I’m a big fan of playing with ‘Imbalance’ …. In fact it’s my obsession and a huge part of my job.
I’m in my 50s and I’ve spent much of second half of my life studying many of the aspects of what we do and go through when balancing; physically, emotionally, psychologically and perhaps spiritually too … As an Actor, Movement Director for Film, TV and Theatre, and a Circus Performer. … As you might imagine, life has been great fun … and the studies have been fascinating. There is some evidence to show that, once the skill has been acquired, the act of balancing on a tightrope/Slackrope … or more recently, a Slackline, builds core strength, aids focus, can bring down blood pressure and bolster the immune system.
You can’t investigate what we do, what our body/mind goes through, when playing on a slackline, without having to take anatomy, psychology and behavioural neuroscience into account. Well, YOU can … I meant that I can’t.

Alright … Deep Breath …
With a dispassionate and mechanistic study … (scientists love that.) it is possible to analyse and compartmentalise the structure from an entity into smaller and more distinct parts in isolation.
It is possible to engage with the function, for example, of the lungs and the transfer of gasses to and from the blood stream … but then we must connect this function to the musculature of the chest and abdomen, the nerve impulses which are involved in the instigation of the firing of those muscles … the beating of the heart which transports the blood around the rest of the body and to the lungs, and the chemical signals registered within the brain which are informed by the level of acidity within the blood passing through it that another breath must be taken to exchange more gas in order that the entire system can function at a level which is non-critical. …. This might sound like ‘Blah Blah’, but this is going on right now inside each of us without us being aware of it. This is the fundamentals of a ‘Balancing Act’ performed moment to moment … and we haven’t even got out of bed yet, let alone stood on a slackline.
This unconscious adjustment is to keep us/You/Me in a state called ‘Homeostasis’.
This is where I start getting annoyed with the language scientists (including myself) use …. It’s the ‘Stasis’ bit I don’t agree with. Stasis is a concept. It’s another word for Balance …. And there is the heart of the matter. …. We are never balanced … Never …. No, stay with me on this and you’ll like it. I find this liberating.

The ability to maintain a stable upright position is taken for granted by most adult humans, however this seemingly simple and commonplace position requires a complex combination of coordinated cognitive, sensory and muscular adjustments.
How is it that we can be so oblivious to this wonderful dance of equilibrium when scientific studies have shown that we all sway beyond the optimal point of balance again and again., even while in a relaxed two footed stance on solid ground?
Is a moment of stillness possible? The planet is always moving … our blood flows .. our hearts pound… our autonomic nervous system is constantly adjusting our relationship between ourselves and the world around us .. a breeze caresses our skin and we are affected by it .. a sway .. micro-adjustments in the muscles help us to deal with the changes in temperature … our relationship to the environment around us and our continued perceived stasis. We are not symmetrical … our liver is to one side, our heart to the other. As we grow, our relationship to the environment changes on a moment to moment basis …centre of mass, centre of gravity, point of focus, needs, wants, desires, bodily functions. This constant adjustment is a dance of life and, it could be argued, the dance begins before conception and ends … who knows when. This may sound like “new Age Hokum” but the complexities of existence are labyrinthine …. And here’s the joy …. It seems that …. I mean, scientific studies have shown that ( I love it when I can write that to back up my argument) by actively engaging with states of physical imbalance, we are giving a thorough work-out to all the other aspects of our lives, releasing neuro-chemical cocktails which expand our conceptual framework of existence and further preparing us emotionally, psychologically, physically and , perhaps even spiritually for our unfolding balancing act of life.

We’ll continue this at some point soon.

Have fun … I do.

Neuroscience and drowning in a livingroom.

Neuroscience and drowning in a livingroom.

Image

I’ll start this with a little story.

When I was about 7 years old, I was sitting watching one of those Saturday afternoon War movies which used to pepper our TV screens in the 70’s. It was called ‘We Dive at Dawn’ and, as you can probably imagine, was full of submarines and testosterone. Sat beside my elder brother we were wrapped by the narrative …. but the point I want to make is deeper than how propaganda can grab hold of a boy … Toward the end of the film, a torpedo slammed into the side of the ship. Pandaemonium broke out as submariners scrabbled around to fight for rapidly vanishing air pockets as the water rose in the cramped compartments.

While I sat watching this horror, my brother decided to point out, with no short supply of derision, that I was craning my neck and breathing through the pursed lips of a drowning man. I was watching the action as if I were there, going through the same thing. A shortness in my panicked breath, my heart pounding in my chest and a sense of claustrophobia coursing through me…. As you can imagine, I straightened my head and continued to watch from a more ‘Normal’ position … but secretly I was still trying to hold my breath. Since that time, I’ve always been aware of my response to well told narrative. If it’s a good comedy, I laugh like a drain, if a thriller, I am thrilled to the point of having white knuckles up to my elbows and there is never any need to try and jerk tears from me if the story is a sad one, much to my children’s delight.

Cute story, Eh?

But you see, for years I thought I was just a bit sensitive … easily manipulated …

It turns out that there is a neurological reason why I did what I did, and that reason was not discovered or formalised until quite recently.

It turns out that around the 1980’s a group of scientists including Giacomo Rizzolatti and Giuseppe Di Pellegrino discovered a very interesting area of research kind of by accident.

They were in Italy doing research into the motor-neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys … this is not to imply that you have to go to Italy to do brain research on monkeys … They just happened to be there …

The research went something like this.

Let’s put some monitors on the monkeys while they pick stuff up … something they want .. food for example, and record how their brains respond when they pick them up.

Being scientists, they had to do this for quite a long time, with quite a few monkeys, and one day they were tidying up after a long day of monitoring and, in the case of the monkeys, picking up food, when one of the scientists was a little tardy about removing the neural apparatus, while the other guy was a bit more efficient about tidying up the food left over.

As the second chap picked up the food, the monkeys brains fired as if it were them picking it up … Think about that for a moment …. the monkeys brains sent out messages that they were moving their arms and grasping food when they saw another, of a different species, pick something up.

At first they may have called this the ‘Monkey See-Monkey Do’ response, but soon the neurons involved were named Mirror-Neurons, and that was the start of something quite revolutionary in the understanding of social psychology. It turns out that these Mirror neurons are not only part of monkey’s brain function, but appear to be an active part of how humans experience and engage with the world.

When we watch, hear, or even imagine an physical process or event occurring, we experience it in an intrinsic and cognitively profound way. On a tiny level we reproduce the movements of others within ourselves. You may have experienced something similar… a sense of pressure upon you when seeing someone get a wave dumped on them while surfing … even if you don’t surf. The change in breathing while watching a high-wire act go through their routine. Feeling exhausted after watching a boxing match or a particularly good action sequence in a movie.. hence my opening story.

Working in theatre and film is all the easier once one knows that those watching will experience, on a very real and personal level, the peril, joy and anguish we explore. We just have to be good at it … and we are all too willing to point out those who are, and those who aren’t.

It would appear that we are ‘hard-wired’ to have an empathic response to those around us.

Now this could be taken as a reason to believe that human beings are fundamentally good and caring individuals, who are aware of the experiences of others in a profound, visceral and compassionate way … and that it’s just education which teaches us to be grasping, acquisitive and selfish … and to an extent, I hope that is true … but I have watched many small children and heard their parents saying things like ‘Give that back. You only want it because he/she has it.’

Of course they do …. Their Mirror-Neurons have informed them that the other kid picked that up and showed a level of satisfaction on their face when hold or playing with it.

It is a shame that this piece of science cannot justify a move toward us all becoming relaxed and caring hippies in a fare and compassionate world.

I will continue to use this stuff in my work, though … it is really helpful when creating a believable character …. and I’ll keep looking through scientific journals and anything else I can find, just in case they come up with a cogent reason to justify me wanting to be a nice guy.