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Alan Alda just wants us to understand each other

MEMOIR

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating

By Alan Alda

Random House

213 pages, $28

By Kathleen Rizzo Young

Buffalo’s 43North competition allows creative entrepreneurs to pitch their concepts to venture capitalists and investors. Their pitch is as important as their product-- explaining technical information to a broad audience, accurately reading the room, keeping their enthusiasm high and, most importantly, convincing investors to take a chance on them.

The contestants, along with physicians, engineers and professors, could learn a thing or two from a new book by Alan Alda “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?  My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.”

As host of “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS, Alda has learned about some of the world’s most exciting research.  He approaches the assignment as a viewer would--asking the questions they would, and making sure that the scientists and researchers explain them in a way that all can comprehend.

A man of boundless curiosity, Alda is the perfect dinner party guest, interested in everything but specifically, in how dense, technical ideas can be communicated more effectively.  (This is not a passing interest for Alda, who founded the “Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.”)

He quickly realized that communication disconnects impact all areas of daily life.  Patients do not understand the procedures they undergo, accused criminals do not full comprehend their legal options, and husbands and wives speak different languages and cannot understand when their partners don’t get it.

Even Alda was a victim of this, as a dental surgery left his upper lip impaired and he found himself sneering when he thought he was smiling — an occupational hazard in acting, although he did get to finally play some villains before having it repaired. Alda realized that he had not trusted his instincts and asked enough questions.

The book provides examples of people who become better communicators, such as scientists taking improvisation classes and physicians who use the acting mirror technique to see if they are really seeing their patients’ body language.

In one experiment, participants were shown a movie while in an MRI machine with their brain activity tracked throughout. The patients then recapped the movie’s plot in detail to another person. As you would expect, the movie watcher’s brain waves were the same while they were telling the story as when they were watching. The real revelation is that the person listening experiences the same activity in their brains.

Alda understands the power in storytelling: “I know in my experience, people have a harder time understanding what I tell them if I don’t tell it as a story.” At times, he seems to forget his own advice; when he veers from storytelling, it is easier for the reader to disengage.

As a child, Dr. Evonne Kaplan-Liss needed a medical attention and her doctors recommended a “state-of-the-art” procedure. Her parents assumed that meant “best possible.” Actually, in this case, “state-of-the-art” meant “relatively new” as the procedure had rarely been used on children. “It was a learning experience in poor communication that led to twenty-one surgeries over the next thirty years.”

Happily, Kaplan-Liss turned this into a crusade, training medical professionals using her background as an actor, journalist, doctor and patient.

Although he clearly loves science, Alda has not at all forgotten his roots. He outlines how theater and arts education are hugely beneficial to many professions, including reading facial expressions, communicating with body language.

College student Matt Lerner, makes great strides with a young boy named Ben who is on the autism spectrum by using theater games such as tossing imaginary balls and reading each other’s body language.  Lerner ends up starting a summer camp and today his Spotlight program serves over 350 children a year in Boston.

Science is lucky to have Alan Alda as its ambassador and his book is full of true stories and terrific advice.  It would not be at all surprising to see this book in a med school or engineering syllabus—or as required reading for the next 43North competition.

Kathleen Rizzo Young is a veteran News Book Reviewer.

 

 

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