Contemplative traditions in the East and the West, current research in psychology, as well as the experience of performers concur that one’s mind wanders into topics unrelated to the current tasks, and in ways that are very difficult to control.Thus, the simile of the mind as a monkey jumping wildly from branch to branch. This paper introduces the concept of mind-wandering and discusses research on the cognitive, personality, and contextual factors that tend to elicit it. The next section focuses on strategies that performers can enact to attain greater mental control including choosing challenges and taking risks, reducing automacity, eliminating the gap between intentions and physical actions, developing greater continuity of attention (sometimes by creating dynamic circuits with other performers and the audience), and resolving short- and long-term personal issues. The aim of these strategies is to develop a more continuous, versatile, and flexible mind, which might then give birth to that rarest creature, a fully embodied performance presence.
Like the proverbial monkey jumping wildly from one tree branch to another, apparently without rhyme or reason, most people’s minds intractably go from one mental content to another, with a few instances of maintained focus before resuming the aerial voyages. This is a topic that is rarely discussed in the context of performance studies, despite being central to professionals who need to develop intense and continuous mindful presence. It is of no consequence whether we are talking about the interpretation of a dramatic text, improvisations based on suggestions by the audience, or an impulse-based piece, performers who lose track of what is happening at the moment because of uncontrolled mentations unrelated to the task will not create a continuous and coherent performance, and may even “freeze or forget their lines” (www.covermg.com/luke-evans-i-froze-on-stage). This article describes relevant research findings about the nature of mind wandering, discusses circumstances that make it more likely, and concludes with contextual and consciousness strategies that can foster a more continuous and focused performance presence.
Even before researchers started their study of the vagaries of mind-wandering, stream-of-consciousness writers including Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein (a student of the psychologist William James, who coined the term “stream of consciousness”) had shed light and ink on the nature of the changes in our conscious life, with the most famous example being Joyce’s scintillating Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of his Ulysses. Psychologists have investigated mind wandering (mentation unrelated to one’s ongoing activity and independent of stimuli) and the related constructs of daydreaming and attentional lapses for some decades. As any beginner (or intermediate, alas) meditator knows, it is very difficult to intentionally maintain the attention focused for more than a few seconds. A study using a technique called experience sampling, in which people are probed at random times on the contents of their consciousness, revealed that about half of the time that people were engaged in some activities (e.g. working, reading, listening to music) they were thinking about something else, with “making love” being the only activity out of about 20 in which people were focused on what they were doing clearly a majority of the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010). And what was the general content of this mind wandering? There are marked individual differences but on average more than half of the time mentation is about thinking more than one thing simultaneously, with not directed and strange or distorted thoughts present about half of the time (Klinger 1978). These results should not surprise the reader who introspects on her/his stream of consciousness…
There are many contributing factors, from those common to all or most members of the human species to individual, idiosyncratic ones. With respecting the former, the power of evolutionary forces is well-illustrated by the frog’s visual system, which mostly reacts to small, shifting objects or sudden darkening in the visual field, stimuli related to the insects constituting a frog’s meal in their first case, or to predators from above in the second (Lettvin et al. 1959). In the case of hominids’ evolutionary history, it must have been beneficial to have a perceptual system that could easily shift whenever there were medium- to large-size sudden changes in the environment, the smaller ones potentially announcing a prey, the larger ones perhaps being harbingers of a predator or foe; stimuli that did not change or changed very gradually were not likely to have much impact on survival value in those circumstances. In the case of humans, this bias is further complicated by the inception of language and the fact that conceptual knowledge based on expectations and memory affect perceptual information, alienating humans from unmediated sensory experience (Stern 1985). For instance, in a classical study showed that individuals exposed to playing cards with a different colour from their usual one (e.g. a three of hearts painted in black rather than red) took about four times as long to identify what they were watching as compared with cards in the anticipated colour (i.e. the three of hearts in red) (Bruner & Postman 1949). A recent model of perception proposes that it is a shifting, probabilistic process resulting from both top-down (e.g. expectations) and bottoms-up (e.g. sensory information) processes (Otten, Seth & Pinto 2016). The card study also underlines the tenet in cognitive psychology that concepts do not exist in isolation but are linked to networks of other associated concepts (and neural processes) that are more likely to become activated than others (e.g. “heart” bringing associations of red-coloured objects). This network of associations may be implicit or also affect the mental contents that arise in the stream of consciousness. So while writing the previous sentence the memory of a red-coloured, heart-shaped chocolate spontaneously came into my mind, followed by an image of a real (not so red) heart in a movie.
To further understand the sources of mind wandering the reader must also consider that conscious experience is an extremely narrow filter that sieves out an enormous of amount of competing information including stimuli from the various senses and bodily sensations, the inner monologue including evaluations and associations, bidden and unbidden imagery, inchoate sensations, and more, and that although all of these stimuli can impact mental processes, we are consciously aware of only a few of them (Baars 1997). The filter aspect of consciousness is revealed when listening to the “word salad” of someone with schizophrenia, in which all types of associations to sounds and images are unfiltered and break the coherence of intended speech (Maher 1972). Thus, it is not that surprising that stilling and controlling the mind is so difficult and may impact the actions and experiences of performers, who are expected to be fully engaged in what they are doing.
First, there are noticeable individual differences, with some people mind wandering much more than others (Klinger 1978). A recent study, for instance, found that those who are very responsive to hypnotic suggestions tend to mind-wander more than those who are not (Cardeña & Marcusson-Clavertz 2016), and many actors/performers are likely to be in this group (Cardeña & Beard 1996; Coe & Sarbin 1966) Also depressed and anxious people tend to engage in chronic ruminations about actual or potential distressing experiences (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco & Lyubomirsky 2008). Relatedly, another source of mind wandering involves “current concerns” and unattained goals, so that if you just found out that you did not get an expected salary increase, related (and probably not so happy) thoughts may pop into your mind as you are trying to read this paper, no matter how much you try to concentrate on it. And the unresolved issues may go back early in life. For instance, responses interpretable as revealing an “unresolved/disorganized attachment” pattern, traceable to relationships with early caretakers, are associated with poor attentional control (Marcusson-Clavertz et al. 2017). And some people tend to engage in chronic ruminations about actual or potential distressing experiences (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco & Lyubomirsky 2008).
There are as well situational factors that make it less likely that people will remain focused. As mentioned earlier, different situations elicit more or less mind wandering, from making love requiring considerable present-centeredness to others such as self-grooming requiring less (Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010). Another circumstance associated with more mind wandering is poor sleep quality; this relation seems to be bidirectional in that more mind wandering also makes it more difficult to fall asleep (Carciofo et al. 2014). This effect is not just a matter of physical exhaustion; reaching a point of exhaustion during a strenuous but motivated activity may lead to a “second wind” associated with continuing the activity with less effort and a more present mind, as I experienced during my performance training.
Related to mind wandering are situations that offer little change and/or are monotonous or easily predictable. For instance, experienced drivers during simulated easy driving mind wander extensively, as measured by both self-reports (which minimized the extent of mind wandering) and EEG measures (Baldwin et al. 2017). Besides a general lack of change of stimulation, this study also illustrates the fact that actions becoming automatized no longer require much attention, so the mind is more likely to wander around. In addition, public performance may foster a particularly virulent form of mind wandering, namely self-consciousness in the sense of becoming hypercritical of what one is doing and focusing on that rather than on the performance itself (e.g. Toner, Montero & Moran 2016).
A mind wandering actor is likely to become distracted from the required actions and interactions, or if able to enact them may do so in a less than harmonious, committed, and consistent way. S/he may express an action with only part of the body or in a desynchronized way, or respond to both the required action and the mind wandered one, since an idea or image elicits a tendency to act it independently of volition (Carpenter 1852). The actors in a study by Gosselin, Kirouac and Dor (1995) who portrayed unfelt emotions had components of facial expressions that were not as synchronized as those of actors enacting felt emotions, perhaps because their consciousness was split between the emotional expression and their self-consciousness of not experiencing it. Fortunately, there are various strategies that performers can implement to enhance presence and minimize mind wandering during a performance, some of which will need to be developed outside of the performance itself.
Theoreticians and practitioners have described the various ways in which performers who react automatically rather than organically can become distracted or are less than fully engaged in their actions. They have also proposed techniques that have a direct bearing on this issue, including Stanislavsky’s and Grotowski’s discussion of Yoga and other techniques to focus attention (White 2014; Cardeña 1987), the psychophysical integration exercises of Nicolás Núñez, Steven Rumbelow, Phillip Zarrilli and others (Zarrilli 2011; Middleton 2001), and the self-remembering practices of the esoteric author George Gurdjieff, on which Peter Brook directed a film (Meetings with Remarkable Men), which partly anticipated the current interest in mindfulness. In what follows I analyse some of their strategies in the context of current psychological knowledge
In a sense, the easiest way to bring about full psychophysical engagement is to engage in a very demanding or even risky activity. In the case of extreme sports, dangerous acrobatics, or shamanic balancing activities beside a cliff (Myerhoff 1976), a mind that wanders can bring about injury or even death. At times, intense performances (and the skills of the person must be able to match the demands) and other activities can give rise to an experience of flow, sometimes referred to as “being in the zone”. It entails a euphoric experience, focused concentration and loss of self-consciousness, a change in the sense of time, and a non-dual experience of self and activity that may be experienced as transcending the usual identity (Brymer & Schweitzer 2017; Zarrilli 2011; Csikszentmihályi 1990). However, and despite the common reference to non-dual absorption during flow experiences, it is more accurate to speak of a process in which the performer may at times be pre-reflective of the body and observing self (which are experientially at the fringes of consciousness but do not completely disappear) and immersed in the task, but may become more reflective if something unexpected occurs and/or modifications of actions are required (Toner, Montero & Moran 2016). This shift towards a reflective stance to maintain the ongoing performance as needed should be differentiated from self-consciousness in the sense of adopting a critical, ruminating self-evaluation.
Some performances are very intense and may subsume high levels of physical and/or psychological risk (as in the events of The Living Theatre and similar groups) but there are other ways to create challenging situations during preparation and performance. A strategy to enhance psychological presence while creating a mental challenge is to expand the focus of consciousness so that the performer purposefully tries to remain conscious of the various sensations in the body, which Peter Brook’s describes as making every part of the body “alive” (see www.nytimes.com/video/times-talks-peter-brook). This idea also leads to intentionally expanding and maintaining the focus of attention on the other performers and even the audience as needed. The search for challenging performing activities can be extended to the audience as well, as exemplified in the participatory works of Nicolás Núñez, which he has also called Teatro de Alto Riesgo (Theatre of High Risk), and which may require the public to walk in darkness or take other physical and psychological risks (and members of his group undergo similar experiences, for instance while I was in his group we were exposed to exercises such as climbing a non-fixed small trunk, which could lead to injury if one’s mind wandered).
In contrast to undemanding activities, those that are too easy and/or repetitive can lead to more mind wandering. In this regard, one of the ways to elicit mind wandering in the lab is through the SART task which asks people to press the same button when they are exposed to various numbers except for one of them, which occurs rarely (e.g. Marcusson-Clavertz, Cardeña & Terhune 2016). But even complicated activities can lead to distractions when they are over-learned, as in the case of performers doing something mindlessly after they have rehearsed it many times. The mind creates sub-routines for well-learned tasks allowing us to do multiple things simultaneously, but at the cost of doing them without full attention or much flexibility (Baars 1997). Various forms of mental discipline have sought to counteract automaticity (so prevalent in life, see Langer 1990) from Gurdjieff’s practice of self-remembering to mindful meditation in the East and the West. There is evidence that contemplative practices can increase stimulus discrimination and reduce conceptual (e.g. Lueke & Gibson 2014) and perceptual (Brown, Forte & Dysart 1984) automaticity. At a neurological level, Kasamatsu and Hirai (1969) found that the ability to continue responding to a repeated stimulus was associated with proficiency in meditation. Perhaps the clearest conceptualization of a search for reduced automaticity is the Buddhist notion of shoshin or “beginner’s mind,” which refers to doing something with a fresh and attentive mind, as if one were a beginner, although with the skills of an experienced practitioner.
Contemplative and performance practices, including those in which the focus is the psychophysical integration of bodily and mental processes so that there is no experiential gap between them (Zarrilli 2011) can develop greater continuity of attention, a very undeveloped skill for most of us. This integration may require at least initially to pay attention to shifts in sensations, perceptions, actions, and thoughts. Loading consciousness with many complex and related dynamic stimuli behind an overarching intention (remember Stanislavsky’s objectives) will make it less likely that the mind will wander away. And not only mindful but also concentrative meditation on a single stimulus can increase sustained attention in general (MacLean et al. 2010).
An easier, but limited way to achieve greater continuity of attention is to have someone else shape an experience as in the case of hypnosis, which uses strategies to minimize distractions and focus attention on what the hypnotist suggests (Cardeña & Spiegel 1991). In Lars von Trier’s 1987 film Epidemic, a non-professional and very hypnotizable actor gave a tremendously intense performance in part because of her believed-in imagining in what was occurring in the film, but it is doubtful whether she could have delivered a flexible and nuanced performance in a longer and more diverse role (Von Trier’s interest in hypnosis is also present in his film Europa, or Zentropa, which starts with a hypnotic induction), as suggested inWerner Herzog’s film Heart of Glass in which hypnotized actors came across asstilted and one-dimensional. In the only study I am aware of on this topic, using a hypnotic induction and suggestions for creative acting, student actors who were not very responsive to hypnosis felt less anxious and more focused during their later performance, whereas those who were very responsive to hypnosis felt more spontaneous but their performances were less precise (Council et al. n.d.). In sum, hypnosis may enhance focus and decrease self-consciousness, but it may be deleterious in other ways, so using it may be more beneficial when preparing a performance than during it or to assist with some specific problems such as stage fright.
Some of the ideas above refer to developing the range and focus of conscious experience given humans’ general cognitive limitations, but another issue centres on obtaining greater knowledge and control over idiosyncratic gaps and automaticities that result from one’s personal history. Mind wandering can refer to ruminations about unresolved personal issues that may produce distractions, inflexibility, and exaggerated reactions. If some of these features happen to match the role that the actor has to play, they may energize the performance although they are not so much under the performer’s control. For non-matching roles they are likely to be detrimental. Thus, techniques for consciousness expansion and continuity may need to be supplemented with therapy or other forms of self-inquiry and growth, as these approaches target different domains of experience.
For analytical purposes, I discussed in separate sections various strategies to develop an enhanced and continuous performance presence, but they can supplement each other in practice. Expanded awareness of various stimuli constitutes a challenge, and being aware of the many subtle changes in oneself and the others will help reduce automaticity and develop greater consciousness continuity. And even mind wandering/daydreaming or letting impulses take control over oneself may be helpful when one engages in them purposefully, for instance to obtain insights during rehearsal and preparation, since they can become a source of creative and personal insights (Klinger 1978). Thus, daydreaming and uncontrolled nonconscious processes should also have their place during the process of creation, but a wandering and uncontrolled mind is not likely to be beneficial in the midst of a performance. A performer’s ideal should be to develop a balanced, flexible, and agile performing mind (and body, of course), rather than uncontrollably and inflexibly remaining mired in a mental process, whether it be intent-less mentation or wandering thoughts, pre-reflective absorption, or even perfect equipoise.
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Etzel Cardeña PhD holds the endowed Thorsen Chair in Psychology at Lund University in Sweden, where he directs the Centre for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology (CERCAP). His main areas of research include exceptional (anomalous) experiences including ostensible psi phenomena, the neurophenomenology of hypnosis and dissociation, and psychological acute reactions to traumatic events. He has been elected fellow of a number of professional organizations and his more than 300 publications include Varieties of Anomalous Experience and the two-volume Altering Consciousness: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. He has also worked professionally as a theatre director, actor, and playwright in México, the USA and Sweden, and is currently the Artistic Director of the International Theatre of Malmö. He has been a consultant to the University of Huddersfield’s Center for Psychophysical Performance Research and the NODE Center for Curatorial Studies.