Alan Alda and the changing face of science communication

Alan Alda teaches us all how to communicate good in his new book 'If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?'

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Alan Alda will be known forever to the wider world as the iconic Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H. However, in the last twenty or so years he has been an influential part of a quiet revolution in the scientific community. In his time as host and interviewer of Scientific American Frontiers he became fascinated with the art of science communication. When were the scientists he interviewed at their most relatable? When were they hiding behind jargon?

Through his background in acting and improvisation, he began to distill what he learned as an interviewer, factoring in the latest research on emotional empathy and theory of mind. This lead him to create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Out of that came his new book, If I Understood You Would I Have This Look On My Face?, which is a fascinating compendium of everything he has learned. Part textbook, part memoir, part gentle conversation, Alda discusses concepts about theory of mind, empathy, and generally tries to make the world a better place through communication.

I was lucky enough, in tandem with reading the book, to attend Alda's accompanying talk at the May 12th Random House Open House. An excellent event, and one that I recommend to anyone with a fondness for reading. Comments and quotes from him in this article are from that event.

If you have read Alda's previous books, then his style of writing here will be familiar to you. It is the same tone he speaks in. Gentle, warmly patricianal, and never too far away from a joke. "I can [see] what you're thinking," he said ominously, referencing his newfound ability to read minds to the Random House audience, "and it's that you love me." He was not wrong, and laughter ensued.

As you might expect, given the topic of this book, Alda takes great care in explaining the concepts he wants to share, and yet his prose never becomes overly ponderous. With a book such as this one, it would have been so easy for it to be a dry, pseudoscientific tome, but If I Understood You is blessedly free of these trappings.

"You would never call this a scientific treatise. The jokes are too good."

While you would never call this a scientific treatise (the jokes are too good), Alda has an excellent grasp of everything he discusses here. He cites scientists and studies easily to back up his hypotheses. Though this would not be enough for a peer-reviewed paper, for your average reader (myself included), this proves to be more than sufficient in opening up a new perspective on the art and science of communicating.

Alda inevitably brings many of his suppositions back to improv and acting exercises, which is to be expected given his background. He speaks in relation to 'relating', in which he quotes Mike Nichols, who once told him: "Relating isn't the icing on the cake… it is the cake," as he directed Alda in a play. "I thought relating just meant looking at someone, so I did," Alda demonstrates with an imaginary scene partner, "[then Nichols] said 'Relate more!!', so I did this," he leans in uncomfortably close to the imaginary actor, causing laughter in the crowd. Alda's process of listening and relating has obviously evolved somewhat since then.

Alda describes an exercise tested at the Stony Brook centre to improve empathy, where subjects, on a daily basis, were encouraged to notice people's facial expressions and assign them an emotion. Test subjects were found to be more empathetic on a standardized empathy test after a week of performing this activity on a daily basis. Alda speaking of his own experience with the technique said "I think I would have been a better actor sooner, if I'd had this earlier," adding, "I find people less annoying now."

Another exercise he details in depth is the classic actor mirroring exercise, in which one actor must copy another's movements exactly, like a mirror. He uses this as an analogue for communication, stating how listening is a two-person exercise. He demonstrated this at the Random House Open House using an audience volunteer. As he did so, he added: "It's my job to make her look good, and that's part of communication."

It is the job of a scientist explaining a theory, or anyone explaining anything, to ensure that the person they are communicating with can follow them. "The idea is to make that contact [with people] habitual… it makes [people] more open, more human." It will not surprise you that Alda is a very open person.

"We are social animals who are condemned to one another's company," says Alda, speaking of the tribulations of communicating and relating. What makes this book so endearing is how genuine his fascination with the topic is. You never get the sense that he was bored at any point whilst writing this, and his enthusiasm is a contagion communicable through the text. "It's not a formula," says Alda, "I'm looking for experiences that transform you in ways you can keep at it… it's not a formula, it's an improvisation."

"I'm looking for experiences that transform you in ways you can keep at it… it's not a formula, it's an improvisation."

What started as his own quiet interest in science has evolved into an incredible hybridization of the fields of acting and scientific discourse. This work feels surprisingly overdue. It's not that these exercises will be new to actors, they won't be. And it's not that these concepts will be brand new to behavioral psychologists either. What's new here is the interdisciplinary application of these principles, and how accessible he is able to make them.

Alda's work could well improve scientific discourse the world over, and day-to-day interactions in general. As he recanted at his talk: "one physicist said to me [about the work]: 'This has saved my marriage'." Alda set out to improve scientists' people skills, and may have ended up with a blueprint for doing a lot more than that. Highly recommended for people of all stripes.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? will be released on June 6th, available from all good book retailers

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