How Cognitive Science May Explain the Magic of Theatre


MRI Pixie, by Rum Bucolic Ape. Reproduced under CC BY-ND 2.0 licence.

When we watch a play we can see and hear the characters on stage, but we also have to try to imagine what they may be thinking. In this post based on his article in Postgraduate English, Ryan O’Connor explains how recent advances in cognitive science may help to explain the workings of theatre, building on the insights of the Greeks two thousand years ago.

Plato’s musings in The Republic on the place of drama in a just society, and the retort set out by his student Aristotle in The Poetics, have in many ways defined the parameters within which philosophers and theoreticians in Western traditions have thought about theatre in the last two millennia.

For Plato, a truly just, utopian state would have no place for theatre – his main objections were that it is not governed by reason and that it only represents a partial and ultimately duplicitous version of the world as it really is. In Plato’s view theatre contrasted with philosophy, which, governed by reason alone, gives us a more legitimate method to examine the essence of our existence.

Aristotle on the other hand, having learned at Plato’s academy, argued that the theatre presented us with universal truths and that, through the cathartic effect that it produced in spectators, it was a purifying and enriching experience. He opined that theatre gives the audience the chance to develop their emotional capacities.

While storytelling and song have gone through untold revolutions since their time, becoming the novels and poetry we know today, the physical boundaries of theatre – with living bodies performing in front of similarly living bodies – means that the theoretical opposition outlined by Plato and Aristotle remains influential. Though philosophers have stubbornly quarrelled about its merits and playwrights have innovatively toyed with what can and cannot be shown on stage, the essential form that theatre itself takes has largely remained unchanged since the time of the Ancients.

A wideangle view of a Greek amphitheatre

Ancient Greek Theatre, by Matthias Süßen (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In terms of the role that spectators play in a theatrical event, we can put this in more concrete terms. Consistent with Plato, we ‘know’ (on a purely rational level at least) that the things we are presented with onstage are not ‘real’ – for instance, we know that the man behind the curtain that Hamlet stabs in Act III is not really dead. However, in the more Aristotelian reaches of our minds we ‘feel’ that what is presented onstage transcends (to a greater or lesser degree) the literal interpretation that is central to Plato’s view – we see Polonius’s body fall from behind the curtain and imagine the impact his death will have on events.

What is consistent across all theoretical approaches to theatre is our intuitive fascination with the play of bodies onstage, where we attempt to ‘read’ into their movements the reality of the minds behind them. To this end, what can modern psychological sciences tell us about our preoccupation with others and, in terms of our understanding of the theatre, do they allow us to reassess the arguments set out in the Athenian academy?

Science Meets Art

The development of psychology as a discrete branch of the sciences has afforded insights into the workings of the mind not conceivable in the time of Plato and Aristotle. In the last few decades alone, advances in technology and a deeper appreciation of our evolutionary history have shifted our understanding of the brain’s role in our bodily experience.

Where the brain was once considered a distinct entity from the rest of the body, cognitive sciences now see the development of both as fundamentally and inextricably linked. Furthermore, research has shown that much of our cognitive structures – patterns of thought, reasoning processes, imaginative capacities – arise from our embodied nature, in the sense of both of personal and evolutionary development.

Bust of Plato with an MRI brain scan superimposed on it

Central to the recent increase in the application of cognitive scientific insights to theatre studies has been research into our so-called ‘mirror neurons’. These are groups of cells in the brain that are thought to be fundamental to the intersubjective understanding and empathetic drives that were so essential in the development of humans as a social species. At their most basic, mirror neurons are cells that activate both when we perform an action and when we see a similar action being performed or hear it being described.

Further research on the function of these cells has found that they fire with far greater strength when we are attuned to the context in which the action is taking place: for instance when we are engaged with a piece of theatre, attempting to understand how a character’s actions will affect events.

From the view point of cognitive science, it is clear that the opposition articulated by Plato and Aristotle is not a clear-cut as it first seems.

Via Meta Sage. Reproduced under standard YouTube licence.

Plato’s conception of mimesis does not begin with the real world and end with the imperfect representation of it onstage. In fact, cognitive science tells us that a type of mimesis or ‘mirroring’ is fundamental to spectators’ understanding of the theatre, with this process an echo of the socialising instinct essential to the survival of our species.

Neither, as Aristotle has it, is our experience as spectators so much dependent on catharsis (and through this the pursuit of universal truths). Instead, it is our innate drive to understand the physical world around us, especially our fellow homo sapiens, that accounts for our fascination with theatrical spectacles.

How Brains Blend

This account of how humans understand the environments in which they find themselves stands to reason when addressing more representational or naturalistic modes of theatre. However, we can see how this approach comes up short when confronted with more experimental pieces. Take for example Samuel Beckett’s Not I, in which spectators are presented with a disembodied mouth that cannot stop speaking. We have never in our everyday lives nor in our species’ evolutionary history encountered something like this, yet we can (with some effort) begin to make sense of it.

One theory, backed up by recent research, posits that different ideas and concepts, information we have received from our various experiences, can be combined across a large span of neuronal networks in order for us to process new experiences. This Conceptual Blending Theory, set out by cognitive linguists Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, describes how we can ‘blend’ existing knowledge to generate novel inferences. It also goes some way to giving a neurologically-based explanation for artistic creativity.

As I have shown in my article in Postgraduate English, for us to understand a piece like Not I as spectators, we can take certain points of information (for example, our understanding of narrative structure) and blend them with others (for example, our knowledge that Beckett’s works often toy with the idea of time as a linear sequence) to facilitate our understanding of Mouth’s monologue, which disconcertingly seems to contain little or no distinction between past and present.

The majority of this blending of concepts takes place in the cognitive unconscious, with Conceptual Blending Theory just one of a myriad of cognitive scientific approaches that allow us to re-evaluate our understanding of the theatrical event.

Back to the Greeks

In many ways, Plato and Aristotle’s views of the theatre were circumscribed by their own projects of establishing a coherent system of ethics. Because of the tenets that each held, theatre necessarily needed to be judged as a good or bad thing, as moral or immoral.

As a vast interdisciplinary study of the mind, cognitive science is changing how we understand the world and everything in it, from economics to linguistics, from our childhood development to artificial intelligence. By applying it to the world of theatre, we are able to sidestep any of the pre-existing assumptions that influenced our predecessors, allowing us to expand our understanding of how and why theatre continues to move us.

Ryan O’Connor’s article ‘the brain in control…under control…’: Toward a cognitive approach to the spectatorship of Not I is available to download now from our open access Postgraduate English journal.

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