The Scientific Alan Alda

I loved M*A*S*H as a teenager, appreciating the dialogue more as I got older.  I always favored Alan Alda’s character, Hawkeye Pierce.  He was flawed and accepted that others were too, but he abhorred hypocrites.  More recently, I loved his character on the last season of West Wing, a Republican presidential candidate with ethics.  His character refused to discuss his own or his opponent’s religion.  When he was offered information to smear the Democrat, he went directly to him and made a principled decision to neither use nor publicize it.  (If only …)

What I didn’t know is that Alan Alda hosted PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers for fourteen years.  While doing that, he developed his own experience as an actor and amateur scientist into facilitating communication of complex ideas (science) to a wide audience.  He eventually founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and continues to draw from his own improvisation training and acting experience to inspire better communication and empathy.

The book, If I Understood you, Would I Have this Look on My Face?, is an interesting memoir of his journey and filled with techniques from a life of acting and insights from past and recent scientific studies.

The pairing of emotion and reason particularly intrigued me.  Or, as he describes it, “Complete and total listening.”  He goes on to describe the two key elements of communication as “… two different states of mind:  one mostly emotional (empathy) and the other mostly rational (Theory of Mind).”  Improvisation also combines these two – getting into character and connecting with the performances of the other characters in ways that serve the story.

I recommend the book and leave you with the following quote:

“If I’m trying to explain something and you don’t follow me, it’s not simply your job to catch up.  It’s my job to slow down.  This is at the heart of communicating:  If I tell you something without making sure you got it, did I really communicate anything?”