Alan Alda’s ‘If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?’

Alan Alda wonders, could scientists become more personable and available if they studied the art of improvisation?

There is a difficult scene in the Introduction to this book that sets the basis for what will prove a rich, enjoyable, comfortable journey through the always troubling differences between interpretation and translation. Alda, who notes that he’s “well over fifty”, is in the operating chair in his dentist’s office, moments away from experiencing a procedure that will change his life. “There will be some tethering,” Alda is told. He asks for meaning and receives an impatient response from the dentist.

What he doesn’t know is that in order to fix what’s needed, the dentist decides to temporarily alter Alda’s face, turning what was normally seen as a smile into a sneer. The dentist had torn Alda’s frenum (the connective tissue between the gums above our front teeth and upper lip) without effectively communicating the details and consequences of the procedure:

“I’ve come to see my exchange with the dentist that day as something that happens frequently in life — a brief encounter that threatens a relationship’s delicate tissue, the tender frenum of friendship.”

Alda continues by noting that rather than looking for a friend that day, he simply wanted assurance that he was being seen, that he was being recognized and understood. It’s a strong way to open what proves to be a compelling, enjoyable book by a man looking only for answers and understanding that the best way to get them is by drawing from minds more scientifically focused than his. He notes in the book that for the past 20 years he has been trying to determine why communication seems to be so hard, what obstacles have always been in our way. His work as host and audience guide for the PBS-TV show Scientific American from 1993-2004 took interesting routes to reach the same conclusion: Who are we? Why are we here? What’s the biggest obstacle preventing full understanding between medical practitioners and patients?

Alda is perhaps best known as Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce in the classic CBS-TV series based on the 1970 Robert Altman film M*A*S*H. Hawkeye was an acerbic surgeon who found himself in the Korean conflict against his will patching up wounded soldiers, trying to save them, and otherwise searching for a way out. In the nearly 35 years since the end of that show’s 1972-1983 run (eight years longer than the actual Korean War), Alda has built an interesting film career building both on the comic, empathic persona of Hawkeye and also some purely diabolical characters. With his Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, Alda has built a strong, legitimate track record as a journeyman scientist, and it’s that voice he carries throughout this book that makes the trip well worth taking.

There are two sections in this book sliced into various chapters. In the first section, “Relating Is Everything”, Alda focuses on what he knows best, theater and improvisation. How this will work with the average reader depends entirely on their tolerance for theatrics, which by their very definition can sometimes be too precious. For those of us willing to take the journey, though, Alda’s excitement is palpable. He makes us want to participate. For instance, of the skill known as “Responsive Listening” he notes: “You don’t say your next line because it’s in the script. You say it because the other person has behaved in a way that makes you say it.” This leads him to wonder whether scientists could become more personable and available if they studied the art of improvisation.

The excitement Alda expresses in this book is tantamount to child-like wonder, and that’s risky for a book that may seem to be wandering if a more conventionally science-minded reader wants something serious. “Improvising transforms you,” he writes, “But it does so over time.” In “The Heart and Head of Communication”, Alda goes back to Thomas Jefferson’s “Dialogue between Head and Heart”. This 1786 letter Jefferson wrote to a desired paramour expressed for Alda the essence of clear communication. We have to decidedly understand what the other person is thinking, perhaps even learn how to forecast their reactions through body language and tone of voice. Understand what the other person is feeling, develop a clear awareness of what (and how) they are thinking, and some sort of fulfillment will take place.

Alda continues by looking at “The Mirror Exercise”, which is nothing but what its title suggests. Two people stand before each other, make synchronous movements, and they try to match. The goal of synchronous unity in heart and mind cannot take place without clear observation. Note the use of clear (clarity) rather than perfect. Unity takes time. “There’s no pretending in improvising,” he notes, “no deciding to behave differently.” It’s this aim towards fully understanding the here and now, the present moment, which makes this book so compelling and emotionally valid.

There are many heroes in this book, and Alda generously gives them space to tell their stories. Massachusetts General psychiatrist Helen Riess speaks about a life-changing moment where a woman who appeared on her surface to be fully confident was in fact (as seen by detectors attached to her skin) extremely anxious. “Examining the spikes in the patient’s emotions, she could see the woman was having ‘these little leaks’…leaks of emotions that didn’t necessarily show on her face. ‘She was very good at concealing them’ (Weiss notes.) Dr. Matt Lerner discusses Cognitive and Affective Empathy and the Autistic Spectrum. He adapted improvisatory games originally intended for actors and applied them towards an autistic population. His goal, to help even the severely autistic mind read the actions and motivations of others, bloomed in a camp setting called Project Spotlight, serving over 350 people a year in the Boston area alone.

Alda brings Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence” into his argument by condensing the latter’s steps: develop a primal awareness of the other (empathy), grasp their feelings and thoughts (Theory of Mind), and finally just learn how to understand complicated situations. Alda seems to be bringing these previous studies in less as filler for this book than basically providing the foundation for something bigger. Is he breaking any new ground here? No. What he’s doing is looking at ideas like “Affective Resonance”, which Helen Riess notes is “…the feeling of connectedness we’re able to get with other people…” Later, Alda introduces Evonne Kaplan-Liss, a doctor who argues (as Alda sees it) that “Words can introduce you to an idea, but we think it takes an experience to transform you.”

In Part Two of “If I Understood you…” titled “Getting Better at Reading Others”, Alda enters as a lab rat, and this part of his narrative is particularly entertaining. He wants to learn how to name emotions as a way to separately deal with them. It’s the idea of determining how well we look at each other, how closely we understand visual cues, and Alda clearly wants to understand the success rate. No matter how highly experiment participants score in learning to read others, they will always score higher when they pay attention to emotions and faces.

For all that is bright and hopeful about empathy, there will always be dark and hopeless. In “Dark Empathy”, Alda recounts the classic 1975 experiment by Al Bandura, in which participants gave a greater electrical shocks to other participants they had heard referred to as animals. Also, “Reports have come out of Guantanomo that psychologists have advised jailers there on how to make their prisoners feel helpless…” From the darkness of big pharmaceutical companies and the American Psychiatric Association conspiring to control emotions through controlled doses, the bad sides are everywhere. To his credit, Alda’s goal is positive inquiry but he does not hesitate to shine a light on the darkness.

In “Reading the Mind of the Reader”, Alda looks at the need to help science students distill and clarify their written narratives as effectively as their spoken trains of thought. Of his experiences at his Stony Brook center, he notes: “The more we reinforced our students’ ability to focus on the other person, the better able they were to express themselves with words that would land on the reader with clarity.” Again, Alda notes that the initial imposition of improvisatory techniques into written activity (a freewriting exercise to open the mind) was helpful for the overall clear flow of ideas between communicators.

In “Story and the Brain”, Alda goes back to the clearest basic fundamentals and discusses Aristotle and the building blocks of the story. For Christine O’Connell, an Instructor at his Center, it breaks down as follows, to be read in the following order: question, suspense, turning point, and resolution. This is a more distilled version of the diagram used in Literature classes: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Whether for the concrete objectivity of science purposes, or the more subjective high-mindedness of creative literature, it all works. Communication is about overcoming struggle and answering questions.

By the end of his book, Alda looks at “Jargon and the Curse of Knowledge”. It’s an apt way to finish a swift and enjoyable journey through the mission of finding verifiable evidence to life’s questions. There’s good jargon (science speak) and there’s bad, but “When a scientist uses language that’s just beyond the audience’s reach… or when a doctor describes a medical procedure in terms the average patient doesn’t understand… [they] hear the melody but the people listening only hear the tapping…” For Alda, the essence of nature is a beautiful song, not just melody and rhythm. “I want to be cautious and not regard these… as the last word in understanding human interactions,” Alda notes earlier in the book. “One thing you can say for sure… is that they leave you with the suggestion to do more studies.”

Alda’s book is neither the first word nor the last word in a layman’s journey through scientific inquiry. It is, however, a rich meal that fulfills and makes us eager for another serving.