Why does the brain like to dream? Take two

Story-Strategy, Act 2 Episode 5 – The Journey: Possibilities 2

The Walking Exercise

Around the edges of the room chairs, materials and personal belongings have been pushed aside to make space in the centre. In this central space people are walking around randomly.

Facilitator : “Walk around the room like gas molecules filling an empty space. When I clap my hands, stop and look around to see if you are evenly spaced. When I clap again, you can start walking again.”


Everyone stops. Here and there people have clumped together and in other places there are large open spaces with nobody in it. “Let’s try again, see if you can space yourself better. Oh and by the way, no talking.”


They start moving again. The third time he claps, they are spaced much better. The facilitator tests them 6 more times with varying intervals of time between each clap.

“Well done”, he says, “now you will do exactly the same thing: stop and start at the same time as a group, but without my clapping.” He waits. One guy, obviously a manager, claps and the group start moving. Facilitator: “No-one else is allowed to clap either. See if you can sense as a group when to stop and when to start.” There are whispers and sounds of reservation. “Oh, and please remember, total silence:.

They start again. Apart from a few giggles, there is silence. Seemingly as one the group starts moving. After about 5 counts, they stop. Again they start and stop. If you look carefully, you can see that every time they stop or start a different person initiates the action. It becomes quieter and quieter in the room. You can hear a pin drop. “Well done” says the facilitator, turn to the person closest to you and share with them what was interesting about this exercise.”

What was different between the two rounds: 1. When I clapped, and 2. When there was no clapping?”

Some answers: The second time, there was no hierarchy.”

“The first time I was in my own head, the second time, I noticed everyone else”.

“WE shared control without being dominated”.

“We feel into a natural rhythm and I could begin to anticipate when we would stop or go. The first time, we were at your mercy.”

Having created the gap with his two rounds, the facilitator moves in to give the Call to Adventure: What if it could work more like the second time in your company…?

When you want someone to buy into a new idea, one of the steps you take is to let them dream of new possibilities. You paint a picture of what it can be like if they accept your ideas/model/product.

The same thing happens when Cinderella gets an invitation from the prince to his ball. People begin to hope that things can be different in a good way – that just maybe their dreams can come true.

What happens in the brain when people dream of new possibilities?

Why does the brain like to hope?

The answer lies in the effect expectation of reward has on the brain. Hope is an expectation of something positive being fulfilled in the future. This expectation of reward releases dopamine into your brain, the same stuff that gets released when you laugh and exercise.

What is extra interesting here, says Dr. Ward Plunet, is that studies show people with higher status is mmore prone to hope in relation to people in lower status positions. This is because they have more hope of getting the pick of the crop in terms of food, shelter and sexual partners. A sense that you have power to choose then adds to the feeling of autonomy and certainty that you will not go hungry, cold or deprived.

If you therefore combine this step in Story-Strategy with Applied Improvisation games (see ImprovSense) that increase Status, Certainty and Aautonomy (SCARF model), the effect of your invitation to dream and hope for a better future triples.


How does neuro-science help us facilitate lasting change?

Story-Strategy Act 1 Episode 4: the magic weapon

We have established so far that, for any training/facilitation/learning process to succeed it needs two essential components: learning design and creative participation. We propose Story-Strategy as preferred method for the former and ImprovSense a for the latter.

One of the most compelling reasons for this is the synergy both methods share with the latest research in neuro-science that shows how the brain become more responsive to new ideas (i.e. learning under certain conditions. I would like to briefly share two models that will crop up again and again as I begin to unfold the details of how Story-Strategy and ImprovSense work.

The SCARF model

The first model is David Rock’s SCARF model. According to this model the brain is most receptive when it has a perception of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Status:                  Do I have power and importance here?

Certainty:            Do I know what to expect? Can I predict what will happen next?

Autonomy:         Do I have choice and control over what happens?

Relatedness:     Do I belong in this group? Am I among friends?

Fairness:              Are the processes fair? Do we all have equal ownership and responsibility?

If a process can give the brain all of these conditions, it will be open and receptive to learn, adopting new ideas and behaviour.

The AGES model

The second model helps us understand what characteristics a process needs to have in the way it presents the material so that the now open brain absorbs and retains the new ideas and behaviours. The AGES model of Davachi, Kiefer, Rock & Rock proposes that processes that focus attention, Generate multiple connections, use Emotion and is Spaced over time, are the most successful.

Attention:           Successful learning requires a learner’s full attention to the topic. This happens when distractions are limited, and there is enough motivation for participants to concentrate on the material or task. How do we entice the brain to stay engaged?


Generation:       Memories are made up of webs of data from across the brain all linked together. The more associations connected to a memory, the easier it is to retrieve the memory later.  How do we optimize the build up of associations in order to maximize the likelihood for memory formation?

Emotion:             Emotion is one of the most important regulators of learning and memory formation because the brain connects positive or negative feelings to the learning content. How do we turn learning into an experience?

Spacing:               The distribution of learning over time leads to better learning, because as the retrieval of information becomes more difficult, long-term memory is accessed. How do we design interventions that make use of spacing effects and delayed testing?

With these models in mind, we are ready to launch into the detail of how Story-Strategy and ImprovSense work. Let us find out if we can answer all the questions posed in this article. If so, we must be in the possession of a pair of magical  weapons…

How does improvSense work?

How does improvSense work?

ImprovSense Act 1 Episode 3: Debate

Marius van Wyk, sales manager at FUNDA Training and Conferencing, sat up quickly.

Wait, I get that people can be encouraged to work in groups and dialogue, but that is not the kind of creative participation you are talking about. You said ‘improvisation theatre’. That means people make things up on the spot in front of others. I call that ‘put on the spot’. That is terrifying. Our client base with its high volume of financial people and government employees will never feel comfortable with that. Even if we were to buy this concept, how on earth will we sell it?

Ok,  so making people feel safe is important to you – especially safety from being put on the spot. It seems to me you value the autonomy of your clients to choose how and when they participate. According to David Rock’s SCARF model both safety and autonomy is necessary for the human brain to function at its best, so you are spot on. ImprovSense is not about putting people on the spot against their will and expecting them to be clever at a whim. ImprovSense is a  skill with three layers:

1. to be aware and listen to one another,

2. to step in with confidence and risk their ideas and

3. to work together to let all the diverse ideas integrate into a coherent whole.

To listen, to step in with confidence and to give and take ideas cannot happen when people feel put on the spot, they have to feel safe and free to choose. You can therefore be sure that we take real care with both these conditions before we start working. We ask people how they feel when they hear they are going to improvise. This gives them a chance to air exactly the kinds of fears that you expressed. It is part of the Story-Strategy we follow as we design our processes.

Among the feelings, though, there are always also excitement and some curiosity. People are drawn by the idea that they will learn to trust their instincts and come up with innovative solutions together. These are the feelings we want to build on. Apart from safety and autonomy, the brain also likes status, such as the kind that comes from people accepting and using your ideas, relatedness that comes from people sharing solutions and fairness that comes from people all being in the same boat together. All these abound when people improvise collectively.

I don’t understand, show me a game.

Check out  the walking exercise, it is one of our favourite games to start with and really simple, but it creates a feeling of relatedness and fairness within 5 minutes and quickly gives a sense of accomplishment to everyone, which raises their status. It only works though, if people risk moving autonomously and having the safety and certainty of knowing that other will support them. Within 5 minutes everyone’s  brain got what they needed to engage further with whatever the content of the training or learning is going to be.

So ImprovSense opens people up to the content of the training and the conference? I think I like it. This may seem contradictory, but if you just stay on the beach and in the shallow water with them, how do they ever get good at the skills of ImprovSense so that they can keep learning? Listening and speaking up with confidence is not something that can happen in 5 minutes.

That may be the most important question of them all. It relates to the question Claire asked about the stickability of the learning. The brain can get into a space for creative participation within 5 minutes, but it takes a lot of practise to keep it there and to get it there when the pressure is on. There can be a range of things that keep people from listening to each other more often, from speaking their truth with confidence and from integrating diverse ideas into a coherent whole as a way of being. Yet without these skills teams cannot keep learning and developing to keep up with change and stay on the cutting edge of their industry and business.

What do you suggest then?

We like to work with teams over time in a group coaching type space to help people identify what holds them back and we work through it using improvisation exercises.  What keeps them from listening to each other, from speaking up and from integrating diverse ideas into a coherent whole that is innovative and produces lasting solutions?  Over time the way people relate to each other and the way they learn and develop in an organisation can completely change. We like to do more that just revamp how people train, conference and learn, we like to create a team climate in organisations where learning, innovation and development is a way of life. In an organisation like that training, team building and even conferencing is not a once off let’s hope it hits the mark type thing, it is a way of life and conferences or training workshops are just instigators for deeper learning processes.

That is a mouth full. If it is the way you say it is, then why do most of our training workshops run for only half or full days, maybe up to 3 days in a row if we are lucky. The skills you talk about develops over time. Are you saying we must change the way we structure our training?

I did not say that, but it may be something you are saying.

It sounds expensive and time consuming. I want to see how it works first.

Great, then stick around. You may find it far less time consuming and expensive than you think – especially if you can learn the tricks yourself and do not have to pay experts to run it all the time…

How can I increase the potential for shift to happen?

Story-Strategy, Act 1, Episode 2 continues  – Possibility

Lectures where info is simply transmitted, shows, like feel good motivational talks and games like paint ball and potjiekos competitions (team cook-ups), all lack one or both of the essential ingredients for programmes that maximise the potential for shifting your audience, team or workshop participants. These two essential ingredients are performance design and creative participation.

Learning design is the art of turning information into a carefully sequenced and well crafted learning experience. Here the content does not dictate the design, but rather how best to shape the content so that people buy it. Often story, pictures, audio visual stimuli like props and videos and interactive techniques are employed to unfold the material and enliven the presentation. Speakers, trainers and teachers who add this component to their material significantly increase the potential for shift to happen  since it creates more brain connections for participants drawing them into the ‘story in the room’ (content presented).

Creative participation is the art of creating structures that invite participants to contribute their ideas, thoughts and actions to the material. This kind of experiential process  allow participants to bring their own ingenuity to the conversation, and even discover tacit knowledge that they did not know they had. Programmes, talks and interventions that employ games, interactive processes, conversations  and liberating structures also greatly enhance the potential for shift since people are able to connect their own stories to the story in the room.

Old fashioned lectures are poor in both these aspects, shows are stronger in performance design, but lack creative participation and games have the latter, but not the former. For shift to occur, both are needed.

Story-Strategy is a learning design principle that uses the structure of story to design talks, workshops, conferences, and other organisational development interventions.  . Storytellers from the early ages until now have learned to frame and simplify the complexities and abstractions of human experience of change.. Understanding the dramatic  structure of change and developing an intuitive sense of its ebb and flow can greatly improve your ability to create conditions for shift to happen. Story-Strategy is, therefore, an understanding of the big picture of the sequence in which people can take and adapt to new information or behaviour

ImprovSense is a creative participation methodology that uses the principles of Improvisational theatre to foster a climate for creative collaboration and team innovation. Improvsense  is the ability to know when to listen and observe, when to take action and initiative and how to mix the two into a dance of intuitive sensing and responding.  It is the skill and art of improvising in the moment and trusting that the outcome is what it needs to be. These skills are essential for creative participation in finding solutions that individuals can own and use.

When you add Story-Strategy to a game, lives can be changed just like the game of soccer can transform kids when the learning of life skills are designed into the game.

Similarly, when you add ImprovSense to a show by letting the audience take part in the meaning making, you can shift whole communities just like some of the successful AIDS education programmes that combine theatre and educational workshops.

At Playing Mantis we find that story and improvisation are potent companions because they work well together and where they intercept shift is inevitable. This blog is devoted to Story-Strategy, but will refer to ImprovSense as and when needed, so you can have the benefit of both.

When you want to increase the potential for shift to happen, your ImprovSense halps you navigate your action in the moment while your Story-Strategy helps you retain perspective of the big picture. Between the two you create the conditions for shift in the lives of your team members, workshop participants, customers, employees, and, of course, yourself.