I’ve spoken about this topic several times, but only recently have I actually discovered the real term used by psychologists around the world. The term ‘Expert Induced Amnesia’ is basically describing the state of expertise when being able to usefully describe how something is done is no longer possible. This is precisely why Larry Olivier’s autobiography is chatty gossip and Tony’s Sher’s brilliant ‘Year of the King’ describes process, but not in a way that would be useful for anyone but Tony Sher himself. Ironic that this was practically the handbook for A-Level Theatre Studies at my school. I am currently watching the tennis, Wimbledon is currently in session and the highs and lows of dramatic tension are being played out in front of the world. But ask any of these expert sports professionals how they do what they do, how specifically – and they will not be able to tell you. Show them a video of their performance and ask them to explain how and why they did something and they will be able to give a strategic answer, but not why their bodies did what they did or how they knew the ball was going to do what it eventually did.
Expert-Induced-Amnesia. I’m afraid it’s a huge problem for learning acting from actors themselves. It’s different if they’ve actually spent time trying to work out how to teach acting, but if they’re not careful it ends up as a rather useless ‘some tricks I learned that work for me.’ For this reason, after many years enjoying them, I don’t read actor’s autobiographies any longer. They cannot help you learn about acting – they can inspire, but they also confuse because they explain a process so intuitive and so personal that if you were to copy it, you would fall flat on your face.
Expert Induced Amnesia is also why you can’t really describe how you do what you do as an actor either and why teaching the basics of acting can be a little bit painful until some of the skills have become unconscious. At this stage, as unconscious competence kicks in, you can no longer quite say how you’re doing what you’re doing. You know how you learned what to do, but can you describe precisely how – in the moment – you did it? No chance.
Of course with techniques that confuse and baffle, the student/actor has even LESS of an idea how they ended up doing what they’re doing.