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Part 3
Explanation using Systems Theory

Our Thesis
  1. Vivian has acquired a knowledge of a pattern called ‘Clowning’.  This particular form of clowning can involve a considerable range of behaviours.  The common characteristic is that they invoke or maintain a clowning relationship with the audience.

  2. Vivian has acquired his knowledge of clowning by long experience of observing what he and others do and by noticing what works, i.e. by seeing enough examples of the effects of clowning that he can now detect a behaviour that is likely to promote the clowning relationship.  This acquisition must have been a reflective process as the effects can only be known after the behaviour.  In the case of clowning the effects happen within seconds in the audience reaction, or minutes in a potential situation unfolding.

  3. As a clown coach, Vivian makes ‘offers’ to the clown on stage with the aim of encouraging those behaviours that match the pattern (“Make it bigger”) or that have the potential for matching the pattern (“Become what you see”).

  4. A TOTE (Ref. Dilts) is a kind of "difference engine" (Ref. Minsky) that relies on noticing a gap or incongruity between the goal and the present state. Whereas Vivian appears to use a matching process that notices the goal existing in a small way in the present state, or the potential for the goal in the present state/behaviour.

  5. A ‘difference engine’ involves a sustaining (negative) feedback loop which reduces a gap by either returning things to a norm or achieving a new desired outcome.  For instance, “We’re moving away from where we need to be so let’s go back” and “We’re not where we need to be, so let’s go forward” are both examples of a negative feedback loop in operation.  Using negative feedback is a top-down approach because although you may not know what you need to do to get somewhere, the desired result is known in advance.

  6. On the other hand a ‘matching engine’ involves an escalating (positive) feedback loop which results in more (or less) of something, hence widening the gap with the original state.  For example, ”I’m enjoying this walk so let’s keep going”.  Using positive feedback is a more bottom-up approach because although you know you’re going to keep doing a class of behaviour, you don’t know where it will take you. (And, if you do it enough, you will eventually cross a threshold into a qualitatively different world.)

  7. One way to conceive of what is happening in the clowning acquisition process facilitated by Vivian is to consider it as a Darwinian selection process (Ref. Dennett).
All Darwinian processes need:

  • A reproductive/copying mechanism

  • Some variability in that process (this creates novelty)

  • More offspring than are necessary (this provides a selectional pressure: those with the ‘best fit’ survive to reproduce the most offspring)

The above can be translated into a clown acquisition process:

  • The clown’s conscious and unconscious memory is the copying mechanism which reproduces clowning behaviour.

  • Memory is not perfect and the environment will be different, both of which provide an element of chance and hence newness.

  • Clowns have access to many more behaviours than the few that actually get selected. Vivian’s offers determine ‘best fit’ and so these behaviours get copied most often. This means more of them survive during the performance and via the clown’s memory, more survive in future performances. When the clown utilises these offers, they eliminate other behaviours or options.

Vivian’s offers provide a selectional pressure in a number of ways:

  • He’s the expert

  • Clowns soon get the message that accepting his offers helps. [And believe us, when you’re on stage they are a Godsend.]  

  • The clown and other participants see that his offers work.

Other selection pressures come from the desire of the clown to do well and the reaction of the audience.

What determines best-fit is the model in Vivian’s neurology of ‘What clowning is’.  Remember, this is not a model of behaviour but of the class of behaviours which establish and maintain the clowning relationship with the audience. And, as the clown selects more behaviours that match the model, so they themselves develop a model of ‘How to clown’.  Then they can apply their own selection process and establish their own self-sustaining (positive) feedback loop with the audience’s reaction.

In summary, trainee clowns learn to internalise Vivian’s decision-making model.

This approach will not be suitable for learning all activities, but it should be suitable for those skills that require continually choosing from lots of options while responding to feedback in the moment.


Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1996)

Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier, Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding, (2000)

Marvin Minsky, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind (2006)

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