Memory Loss  –  Learning the lines or improvisation, or neither?

by Joan Calder, retired/volunteer work, Frome, UK 

It is a known fact among actors that there are moments on stage when you cannot remember how you arrived at the point you have reached, but more terrifyingly, you just cannot remember your lines. The mind goes blank and panic sets in. This can happen more frequently as they age until some have to give up their profession entirely. It is not only actors who suffer this in older life, all those who develop some form of dementia follow the same pattern.

Often in life we hear people confessing they find themselves somewhere and have no idea how they arrived there, or they can’t remember names, or what they were going to do next. Perhaps not so surprising, if as per Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage” and we are all transient actors entering and leaving.

Recently there was a research project with a group of older actors which came out with some surprising results. The research team followed a group of older actors as they took part in a course of improvisation classes at the National Theatre. Many actors who have been used to learning their lines and having to remember them find it difficult to improvise, the same with musicians, especially those older actors who were trained in the old way of learning lines by rote or memory and did not experience the newer style theatre training with lots of free form improvisation.

This group of actors were monitored whilst receiving a course of classes in improvisation. It was discovered that their memories improved, their confidence increased, they became more alive and active in the classes and also in their lives. With improvisation there was no possibility of the embarrassment, criticism, judgment or sense of failure they experienced with forgetting their lines mid performance.

They went on to form a company called “Lost without Words,” and they toured around the UK. No two shows were ever the same. They had no script, but on meeting a new audience each night they dialogued with them and took a theme and improvised on it. Their memories continued to improve, and their confidence continued to grow.

I believed in the past, and it is probably what I had been told when I was young, that learning reels of poetry was a very good way to keep your memory active and would prevent dementia in old age. Now I can see it may be the opposite.

What happens when we learn lines? They become ingrained in us so they seem to flow effortlessly, but it has been a lot of effort to put them into the system, and if we forget them we panic and make a big effort to remember. In this effort to remember, the brain squeezes and contracts itself in the search.

What happens when we contract in the body? We hold our breath, we reduce our blood flow, we limit space within us, reduce ourselves, withdraw from life. Vibrancy disappears, and dullness takes its place. It encourages a roller coaster of continual very subtle remembering/forgetting all the time, highs and lows, and the seeming flow is broken by minute moments of interruptions.

And making the effort to remember takes us from the present, we are going into the past, away from this lived moment where all can be fresh and new and expansive as we express ourselves here and now.

There is also learning the lines of life – the rules we have been taught to live by, the knowledge we have had to learn and abide by, the beliefs which were handed down to us and become ingrained in our consciousness and way of perceiving the world. They lock us in the past rather than living a continual unfolding of feeling what is appropriate, respectful, or necessary, discerned from our sense of what is going on in that moment.

The universe is ever expanding, and if we live an expanding life within this expansion then we grow and change and live vital and open lives, embracing all. This is what we begin to experience when we become students of The Way of The Livingness. There are no rules, only values; there are no beliefs, only felt truth; there is no nostalgic longing for the past or dwelling on it but learning from it, and an encouragement to be present, and to feel the future unfolding towards us, to even live it now – for we are shown how past, future and present are all one in the present moment, everything we have lived and that we return to is NOW. We can claim ourselves in every moment for who we truly are, and there is no need to remember, especially any lines. Everything is spontaneously felt and expressed.

Of course, we have to learn about life and the world, facts and figures, and how to do things, but there is this other way, which is not about cramming in information and recalling it, but living, sensing and feeling in the moment what is needed from the innate wisdom we all have within.

Serge Benhayon gives us the tools to live this way and demonstrates it in his own life. All he says is lived and expressed from within him. He never has a script or even notes prepared to refer to during any of his presentations, courses or even five day retreats. Even when he repeats a message or a truth, which he does often, it is never expressed the same way twice, and will vary according to the context, and what is being discussed or presented at the time.

In the Expression and Presentation Workshops, Serge gives us a subject to talk about, with no time to think, just speak. It seems like an improvisation class but not for playing a part on stage. This is for living all of life, being present with ourselves and speaking what is true and real from our hearts and our innermost being.

We are not there to play a part, we are there, in that moment, to express ourselves.

Living in this way frees us from holding on to an old belief that if we repeat lines we’ve said before we will feel safe, and encourages us to be open to whatever comes without expectation of any particular outcome. This gives us confidence (contrary to that old belief system that says we will be more confident if we know our lines) and an amazing feeling of expansion, of freedom to express from our own firm foundation, and it turns out it’s nothing to do with improvisation at all but is a sense of knowing oneself well and speaking and moving from that place in continual flow as we unfold.

It is only doubting ourselves that blocks this passage and throws us back on the old false ways of trying to stay in control and live within the lines. Many hold onto this to try and avoid dementia, but could it be the opposite is true?

The more we let go of control, memorising and recall, and live from the truth that lives in our hearts, being present in every moment with all that is occurring, where there is no need to escape or check-out, perhaps then we can live to a ripe old age with true confidence and a healthy responsive body and mind.

Read more:

  1. The forgotten side of dementia
  2. The Merchant of Venice and the ancient grudge

521 thoughts on “Memory Loss  –  Learning the lines or improvisation, or neither?

  1. Whenever I have seen people make speeches, the ones that have to me been the best are not the ones memorised or read off notes or written in full, but the ones that have come straight from the heart in the spirit of the moment. This is maybe similar or the same as what you are saying here as well Joan.

  2. Thinking about learning lines, what about religious rituals? I was brought up in the Roman Catholic Faith and so many words of division were repeated in the mass – Mea Culpa – I am not worthy was one that stands out. These thoughts become ingrained in the very fibre of our being.

  3. Knowing that what is necessary for us to express in every moment will be available, comes from having formed a sound connection with our inner wisdom…no need for recall.

  4. ‘We are not there to play a part, we are there, in that moment, to express ourselves’ – when I can let go of ‘performing’ in life and having pictures of how things should be, something amazing, magical and natural starts to happen.

  5. Every day, every moment is new and fresh and if we can allow ourselves to be in that newness then the space created allows us to know and understand all that is needed in that moment.

  6. Love re-reading this Joan – true wisdom is expressed effortlessly when connected with our body and we stop trying to memorise everything.

  7. ‘And making the effort to remember takes us from the present, we are going into the past, away from this lived moment where all can be fresh and new and expansive as we express ourselves here and now.’

    This I know to be true. This blog has got me pondering. There is so much to remember in life. I notice as soon as I get anxious that I’ve forgotten something my mind can go to mush. Conversely, when I’m present I find I do the tasks I need to. This said, at the moment I still don’t trust I’ll be given what there is to do. This is ok for now, it’s a process. So I support myself by writing things in the calendar, writing notes from meetings knowing perhaps it’s only the odd detail that has escaped me. The more I support myself, the more I can surrender to being present with myself wherever I am.

  8. It’s amazing how when we let go of the lines we think we need or have used in similar situation before new ones are there for us which are perfect for the moment at hand. Freedom to respond from our hearts rather than our heads.

  9. It’s interesting to consider ‘stage fright’ in this context, as there is so much fear around the ‘performance’ and getting it right. What happened to the joy of true and free expression where everyone benefits, and there is no accolade greater for any one person, as ultimately everyone is equal.

    1. Very true Sandra. Feeling one has to be perfect is a great set-up for failure, when one doesn’t ‘get it right’. When performers fluff up it makes them seem more real too.

    2. Great call Sandra. In feeling into this more I can feel that ‘stage fright’ is where we have expectations, outcomes and pictures to live up to and focusing on everything that is outside of ourselves rather than all that is within.

  10. What you have written here about the ‘lines’ (the beliefs”) we are learnt from young is so very true. “They lock us in the past rather than living a continual unfolding of feeling what is appropriate,”. In fact, they block us from endless and often amazing possibilities and keep us contained in the prison of the past, a prison we sadly end up believing we can’t get out of. I love how you have blasted this belief right out of the water!

  11. ‘In this effort to remember, the brain squeezes and contracts itself in the search.’ so true and it’s no coincidence that we say that you’ll remember when you’re not thinking about it. Thinking is counterproductive!

  12. I can feel the anxiety and pressure of trying to remember someone else’s lines in a play but also the freedom to express what we feel coming through our body in the moment.

  13. With all you have presented Joan it is clear that presence has a vital role in true medicine. Especially given that nothing truly beneficial comes out of not being present with ourselves. In fact long term, lack of presence is harm-full.

  14. After a kind of very long break as in about 35 years from study I am about to do some courses which will entail memorising stuff for exams, I wonder if they would let me do a bit of the old improv when it comes to the answers.

    1. Good point Kev. This way of learning requires us to be able to produce information from recall that we have remembered but that is all it is – a regurgitation of information committed to memory.

  15. Love what you have shared Joan, and adding to what you have presented; that when we start listening to our bodies and live from that wisdom, the wisdom that comes from the increased awareness from our body because we are listening to our body. Therefore our bodies are providing a true blessing as we live in that wisdom-ship. When we open our body to feeling what is being shared then what we feel from our body will open-ly bring to us a deepening understanding in so many areas of our life, such as being consciously present, also what we eat with the effect it is having on us, how we express and what that feels like, so our ‘Vibrancy’ returns and thus we deepen our understanding about true purpose in life.

  16. We walk around reiterating our past hurts – bringing them in to today and acting them out. If we can just realise these things are not us and needn’t be part of our life – then we are set free to play.

  17. When we become reliant on our gathered knowledge alone and our confidence is based on our remembered intelligence rather than our lived experience, we use that intellect like a shield rather than being ourselves in life.

  18. I have always been pretty ‘good’ at memorising and hence got good grades at school and at University. But this did not build my confidence in expressing and sharing my innate wisdom. It is clear that we do need to remember things, but my feeling is that there is far too much of an emphasis on rote learning and then regurgitation, rather than encouraging a person to develop their natural expression. This natural expression lies within us all and is not something that needs to be learned – and this is what builds a person in their capacity to express and be solid in themselves, just like the studies above in this blog have demonstrated too.

    1. I so agree Henrietta. When we learn something by memorising we are often in a continual state of anxiousness as we hope we remember what we’ve learned. In total contrast when we learn to trust our “natural expression” we are able to share so easily from a place of truth and not a place of re-call.

  19. If we have multiple lives then how we live at the end of our lives becomes hugely important as it transfers directly to our next life. If we think that we have only one life then it becomes ‘rational’ to not spend too many resources on those near the end of their life or work on them staying mentally alert.

  20. ‘We are not there to play a part, we are there, in that moment, to express ourselves.’ This is it in a nutshell. No need for lines as we are not acting but rather simply allowing all that we are to be naturally expressed.

  21. Memorization puts a huge pressure on a person as it asks them to use recall which is not a natural way for us to work. When we use recall we must limit ourselves to being lineal and this means limiting our intelligence to our heads rather than allowing ourselves to stay in and with the body and the universal intelligence that comes naturally with it.

  22. Our current education system is very focused on memorisation and regurgitation of information. Intelligence is seen as someone who is able to memorize well and then spit it out. Students are rewarded for this behaviour and in how much external information they have the capacity to retain. But in considering this method of learning and this version of intelligence, we get to see how much it actually limits a persons development by keeping them in their head rather than allowing them to utilise the full intelligence of the body and how they are feeling and sensing life. And this in turn in so many ways is actually of detriment to the body as a whole especially when the whole is neglected in favour of only one way or form of memorisation only.

  23. Very interesting to read about the experience of the actors in the study Joan. What came to me while reading was ‘surrender’. In the rigidity of learning scripted lines (or a way of living) we lose our natural freedom of expression and our ability to surrender to our body and allow whatever needs to be expressed to come through

  24. The choice to be absolutely present in the moment is an amazing gift to be in the flow of life and the pulse of the universe with a vibrancy and reality of what is going on to be felt and expressed. So different to the learned lines and past ways of beliefs and ideals held on to and keeping us locked in our minds and dependent on our memory with a stress and disconnection issues that follow with nothing to relate to if we forget. An amazing sharing of the truth of what is going on for so many and offering another way to live.

  25. I saw a play last year that had a number of child actors in it and it was so shocking to see the rigidity of their movements and total lack of joy in their expression. I felt very irresponsible for fuelling this process by buying tickets for the performance.

    1. Wow Otto, I had not considered this – this rigidity that comes from the pressures of memorising lines for a play is pretty awful to feel and see. I remember one school play that I was a part of in grade school, and had to say one single line and all I remember was being so scared that I would forget that line and turn myself into a mute! And so when I did go up and say my line, I recalled it, but it was all mechanical and rigid as you have described in your comment. And I was just so relieved to get off the stage…what joy is there in this pressure to have to perform a certain way and memorise things with such rigidity? And true too that each ticket we pay for and each performance we see is only feeding this set up to continue.

      1. And then there is all the praise and applause that is heaped upon these children for remembering their lines, or for getting all their cues correct, or for standing, walking, dancing on exactly the right spot etc…all of which confirm to the child that to get recognition or to be considered successful, they have to fit themselves into a certain pre-determined pattern of movements.

  26. When our computer memory becomes full, we have to archive and or compress and store the unused items. But who tells us what is not needed and how often is it that our wisdom that gets filed away to make room for rote learning?

  27. While we are on the subject of the arts and theatre…you could extend this study to ballet. A movement that is so totally and utterly constricted to a pre-determined choreography. Ballet is judged on the accuracy of the execution of that choreography – the body literally forced to move in an entirely fixed way. Quite apart from the fact that all of these movements exert an extreme and very damaging force upon the bodies, they are all completely and entirely contra to any form of natural expression. There is not one single movement in ballet that our bodies would actually choose to make. Thus – the ballet world is awash with broken bodies, early retirements, recurring and life-long agony and the gargantuan intake of pain-killers. Go against the natural flow and we pay the price.

    1. So true Otto and in this observation, we can see how all of our movements are a choice to align to a way of being with the predetermined patterns of the world we have created or to respond to the impulses of our Soul.

      1. Yesterday I moved within the “predetermined patterns of the world we have created” and hurt my back; no different from the ballet dancers and as you say Michael if we are not “responding to the impulses of our soul” then our bodies pay the price.

  28. “The universe is ever expanding”. I attended some Universal Medicine presentations on the weekend and this topic was discussed and was a real standout for me. I was thinking about the exercise walk options in my new home/area and they are technically limited because I live on a point with one road going in and the same road going out. Normally I like to have a few walk options up my sleeve when I walk but that will not be an option.

    I started to be a bit ‘down about that’ and listening to what Serge presented on the weekend and what you write here is that the universe is ever expanding, so no moment can ever be the same. So this exposed the arrogance and ignorance that we can live in a human race that we think it is the same all the time. It reminds me of an expression I heard in Vietnam, ‘same same but different’. And that’s how it is, it might be the same road each walk but every time will be different if I so choose to tune into that.

  29. There are many games devised to hold onto our memory and to keep the mind active almost to the point of desperation. What if it was just a case of being present as presented by the author that could make a difference to our mental health and our ability to feel what needs to be said.

  30. “What happens when we learn lines?” We can lose connection with a much greater awareness that keeps us present, alive and engaged in life, ready to respond with all the love, grace and intelligence that resides within us.

  31. Living within the lines is calculated, premeditated and full of expectations, all of which stifles our naturally glorious expression.

  32. So much of what we say and do is either a repeat of something that we have already said or done before or it is a regurgitated version of something that has already been said or done. What this does is shut down the endless possibilities and opportunities that are on offer in every unfolding moment.

    1. Allowing and going with the flow allows for great expansion within ourselves. We allow the space for this expansion to take place, this has been my experience.

  33. It’s time we stopped acting and let our true selves be. No matter how many awards or accolades we receive it’s just not worth selling our beauty out for comfort and false acceptance.

  34. So much of our current ‘activities’ geared to teach and keep the mind active are activities that keep us in our heads and tend to shut out the body – hence achieving the final result which is the complete opposite of what we really want in order to keep the whole body active and alive and engaged and confident. What Jane presents here is gold in terms of supporting in such a simple way for people to re-engage in life again.

    1. and our prolific use of screens is just one example of something that keeps our attention focused in the mind, whilst the body gets ignored. Not only is the body often totally ignored when we are in front of a screen but so often it’s compromised. Whether it be a computer screen at work or a screen attached to a game console, our body is often in a state of tension as a result of our reaction to whatever it is that we are doing. The effect of this, is that whilst we are ‘in our minds’, our bodies are quietly building stress and accumulating illness.

  35. Memorizing or ones ability to memorize and then repeat or regurgitate what has been said is seen as intelligence. But this is really only one type of intelligence – a type that does not regard the body as a whole. I certainly recall my fair share of memorizing through my time at University and I was good at that – but I also felt my body harden and tighten when I went to memorize things, my nervous system was on edge and I felt like I had failed (and certainly would not pass some sections in the exam) if I was not able to recall what i had spent so much time rote learning. But as mentioned previously, this is only one type of intelligence and it is not one that regards the body as a whole. So there must then be another form of intelligence that does hold the body as a whole….one that does not compromise it in any way…Perhaps this is the intelligence of living each moment as it presents, and knowing from what it presents what is needed to be said, to be shared to be lived at that moment in time so that this will grow everyone.

  36. Our own wisdom is diminished by the rote learning provided by education. We certainly need to learn skills to be able to live and function in society, but not at the expense of our own wisdom.

  37. Being in conscious presence with the body – mind and body together as one, is a beautiful way to move, without any agenda to ‘be going somewhere’ – this is very healing for the body and cuts the tenacious grip of the emotional mind.

      1. The simplicity of this is beautiful Amita. It brings a feeling of natural true movement and expression and completely turns the structures of school education upside down – no memorising facts to regurgitate at a later date to impress others with how ‘intelligent’ we are.

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