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

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

  1. Why bring our attention to being more present? Especially as there are so many more entertaining places to go to in our mind than what is going on around us, and it often feels safer in the mind when we don’t want to be part of or feel what is going on around us. But I find when I check out, it comes with consequences I have to face – feelings of emptiness, feeling lost and depressed. When I am not present I am actually far more affected by the emotions and situations around me, absorbing them while I supposedley ‘escape’ to somewhere ‘safer’ in my mind.

  2. Amazing research that confirms to me that when we are ourselves we can let our own natural intelligence shine but when we act to be something we are not, we simply mask the beauty that lies within.

  3. I am only just coming to fully understand “What happens when we contract in the body?” and by doing so it has become so clear why my body has been the way it has for most of my life. Part of this understanding has been the realisation I have been a chronic breath holder since I was a child, but what has been so shocking is the effect that this one area of contraction has had on the whole of my body. So, then what about the impact on my body from all the other ways I contract? The list that was long is now getting smaller with the more awareness I bring to the way I live, and as it gets smaller my vitality and well-being is expanding in many wonderful ways.

    1. I agree, the school system is set up to dismiss our natural ability to express from ourselves i.e. our body and being.

  4. When you talk about the embarrassment for an actor of forgetting their lines, this really highlights the enormous pressure they must be under, and how crushing this must be to one’s self confidence.

    1. I have many uncomfortable memories of embarrassment, not as an actor, but when what I shared with someone seemed to come out all wrong. Those were the moments when I wanted the ground to open up so I could disappear into it, and moments which unfortunately I allowed to stifle my future expression. I can only imagine what it would be like when you ‘mess up’ in front of a theatre full of people; it was hard enough in front of one.

  5. ‘We are not there to play a part, we are there, in that moment, to express ourselves.’ – Such a great point, how often in general do we truly express ourselves as opposed to playing the part that we believe is expected of us at any given situation?

  6. We can fall into repeating things over and over, even if it is because it was successful the first time but the universe is constantly expanding and never repeats itself so it makes sense to treat every moment as a new one and connect with what is precisely needed in that specific moment, rather than relying on recall or repetition.

  7. It’s possible to become so good at reciting information that the lines can be blurred between our own natural expression and what we are simply repeating from knowledge. This is a huge reduction of everything we have to offer and how incredible our voice can be, raw and uncut.

  8. “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.” So true Joan. Living in the present has to be the way – and allowing what comes through to do so.

  9. A beautiful sharing of the support and reflection we are given by Serge Benhayon in his workshops and presentations from the truth that is felt and lived in our body that says everything and takes away the pressure and force of learning lines but instead presenting from our lived experience and what we feel and know inside joyfully.

  10. I love the story Joan about the improvising actors, who do not need to learn any lines but went along with whatever flowed at the time. It takes away the getting things right or wrong feeling that I have experienced in the past, when expressing on or off stage, but to simply be with ourselves when expressing, that is all that is needed.

    1. Making things right or wrong causes a contraction in the body and we don’t express all that we could or all that we are or all that is needed in the moment. .

  11. I often ask the question, when i talk to someone: what does she/ he need to hear. And then without thinking I communicate things that are not preplanned or thought. It is quite magical to allow that – there are only moments yet, but when I imagine living from that place it feels so freeing, not exhausting and huge. The moment we don‘t make it about us- heaven is right there to communicate through us.

  12. Dropping individuality and preparing a body that allows heaven to work through is worth the journey, as whatever you thought you could access is only a mere percentage, when you fully let go of :“ I have to know or do it“- and instead living impulsed immediate by a much higher source.

  13. Control is like the big elephant in the room… we all do it, and by colluding, we avoid exposing it. Great to expose the truth of this control Joan and the real impact it is actually having on us all.

  14. “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.” How many people do we see living life like this – of all ages? Until attending Universal Medicine, I was the same… and even now, if I contract, this is exactly what happens. But now I have a marker of joy, vitality and space and the tools to come back to a way of living that is full of presence.

  15. I find job interviews a great place to practice not relying on memory. When I just listen and say what comes, intertwining my lived experiences in my responses, I get some incredible results!

    1. I observed this too in a recent interview. I was just me – all of me – with no picture or expectation of the outcome. I enjoyed meeting the interviewers – we had fun and I did get the job!

  16. Virtually no-one likes learning things by rote – it is such a heavy and brain compressing process, whereas when we are light and playful, and make things practical to life they are much more likely to be remembered anyway, without us trying.

  17. I find it really interesting what you’ve shared about learning lines and the fact that this may actually debilitate our memory as opposed to improve it. It makes you wonder how the education system and current type of examinations are affecting young people?

  18. “…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” – I have recently had this point shown to me vividly in that after an experience of being interviewed I went into a gradual but eventually contracting period of all those classic “Oh, I could have said this”, or “I should have elaborated on that this way”, etc. etc. But in doing that, it denies the beauty and appreciation that I was already aligning to the next bit of awareness and understanding to come into my body to then be expressed in another way. We never have to be ruled by some belief that says ‘we have to get it right the first time’, when, as Joan has shared here, life is about learning and expanding from one moment to the next and when we allow that and take the pressure off ourselves, our bodies will lead us into living the future now.

  19. Improvisation and creativity as opposed to learning lines. I know which one I would choose, the one that is fun, engaging and spontaneous and doesn’t constrain me with rules. I know which one our kids (and most teachers) would rather in their classrooms too.

  20. It seems that science keeps coming up with different theories about possible causes of dementia. Some related to lifestyle, sugars and gut health and many others. We are advised to keep our minds nimble, agile and engage in activities like dancing and learning new things, but perhaps we have missed the point that it is not just about functioning and recall and more about a level of connection and presence we have to life.

  21. I spent a lot of time thinking that the only way to present was to learn every line. I would spent ages writing and re-writing forcing myself to remember and recall. And it was a very stressful process – the end result being that I delivered words I remembered with not an ounce of the true me in it. With the support of Serge Benhayon and his presentation workshops I now know what it is to present what is felt – to connect to what is possible to share and to do so with me as part of the presentation.

  22. It is interesting to consider how improvisation requires a person to be very present in the moment using their felt sense to follow what is emerging. It can often be an experience of not thinking about what to say but allowing things to come through us. But as in all things in life there needs to be a discernment of the quality of energy and expression that comes through.

  23. “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 absolutely highlights the amount of effort and energy we put into ‘remembering’ and ‘recall’ for the sake of so called intelligence, whereas staying in the present we have access to a true intelligence that is far greater and wiser than anything that can be remembered or recalled by the mind.

  24. When we identify with the roles that we play in life we lose the ability to simply be present and express what is needed in each moment. Instead we seek to fulfil roles according to the rules and beliefs about how you should be in that role at the time. This can be seen in how many times we have reinterpreted what the perfect form of mothering or teaching children should look.

  25. One of the lovely things about singing with people with dementia in the care home is that they are often very present, and they generally don’t judge or compare us either which is really rather refreshing!

  26. The depth of our natural expression from our body and lived movements is so powerful real and amazing to listen to with an energy of aliveness and presence that cannot but be felt by all and is deeply touching.

  27. Trying to be perfect especially when we know that we have an audience watching us, puts a strain on ourselves and dampens the joy and spontaneity of our expression.

    1. Funny how most of us seem to have an idea that we need to be perfect, when surely at some level we all know that there is no such thing as being ‘perfect’ – it does not exist. The pictures we are attempting to live up to all have a backside.

    2. Absolutely Elizabeth, so true. For me I feel a huge sense of responsibility to make it ‘worth their while listening’ and that goes up proportionately the more people who are listening! And sometimes I tell myself to speak as if to one other person, and just let the others all listen in so it doesn’t feel so heavy.

  28. What a relief to not have to recall lines but rather draw from lived experience. This would be far more authentic and less taxing on the body and the mind.

  29. I loved what you have shared Joan, the power of being present in the moment and open to the present that we are gifted with in each moment of our lives, this is the livingness of what comes through us, we can let go of the trying to remember and be open and present to what each moment brings.

  30. Like actors who have played a role so long they think that is who we are, we need to stop, take stock and consider the possibility that all the stuff that we put out is simply not true.

  31. The tension of perfection or delivering expected results reduces us and thus hinders the flow of our otherwise natural expression, space to just be without any pictures leaves us unimposed and hence awake and expressive.

  32. The freedom and depth of expression of being open to express what we feel from our body is so much more expansive and real than coming from learned lines and offers a confidence and growth of expression in our whole life and listening to this is very different and when it comes from what is known inside, it resonates with the listener or audience so completely differently.

  33. If we keep repeating actions and do not learn and evolve we stagnate. If we repeat actions and learn from them then in truth we are never repeating, as the same way one day is not the same as the one before.

  34. Not having the lines prepared leaves space for the unexpected, and often we may be surprised how much greater our expression will be than anything we could have planned for.

  35. Joan, I love what you are sharing in this article. I can feel that we have a choice to live in a controlled, regimented way, which I can feel crushes any joy or we can choose to truly express ourselves – living in a very natural and open way that feels evolving and joyful.

  36. How demoralising and disempowering is it when from young we put the emphasis on what information people can recall and deliver as opposed to supporting each to connect more deeply with themselves and engage with life from the gloriousness that they find within their inner heart.

  37. Interesting relation between dementia and linear intelligence – maybe it is actually dimentia we are suffering when we keep reduced to linear thinking and missing out on our multidimensional beingness.

  38. It’s so beautiful when we speak truly from our body and not just from our linear mind, it’s also so much easier to listen to as well, as it resonates with the listener. I am sure we have all listened to a dull power point presentation of data and recalled nothing afterwards, I know I have.

  39. There has been some anecdotal information published about diet affecting and improving our memory in old age – yet you never seem to see studies about this or this being shared with those who might wish to try it as once again there’s not money in it, ‘just’ quality of life. Why is that not given more importance in a world that could easily share if there might be benefits to be had?

  40. Learning the lines literally is linear hence we can only move back and forth on the same line, i.e. recall and repeat; while being present and open at the moment, allowing ourselves to simply be and be receptive and responsive we are by nature spherical which is a completely different way of knowing and communicating.

  41. The best pearls and the most inspiring words come from the body and not from a mouth that has memorized a sequence of words.

  42. Memorising puts us into our heads and into linear thinking. And it puts a pressure onto us to recall things on demand. But if we allowed ourselves to be open to a far more freer way of thinking that involved the body, then we allow ourselves to access a different kind of intelligence and wisdom. Now that is giving access to a Whole intelligence rather than limiting things to pure rote learning.

  43. One day we will all come to realise that the ability to recall in detail is not the measure of intelligence but simply a false marker we adopt when we do not live in a way that honours our connection with the universal wisdom that pours through every part and particle of us every day.

  44. Expression that comes straight from our body without the mind controlling the content always blows me away as there are always pearls of wisdom that present seemingly from nowhere that we can all learn and grow from.

  45. Memory loss seems to be generally considered a natural part of ageing but the fact is it is not, it is caused by an erosion in our ability to stay present brought about by the degree of checking out that we indulge in. So failing memory can be reversed if you don’t allow it to get so bad you are no longer able to be present in the moment.

    1. Interesting Doug, as sometimes it seems that the only place a person with dementia can be IS in the present, for the past and the future are obscured to them, but this is not so, for they are not present in the present!

      1. This can also be expanded as many of them may go back to a time in the past when they were present but they are not present in the present.

    2. Very true Doug and even in the care sector this is beginning to be realised. There is a term now called ‘rementia’ to signify the regaining of memories and cognitive ability in those living with dementia.

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