This Is Your Brain On Art (sizzle sizzle)

Photo: “O is for Occipital Lobe” by Eric on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Kristin Shumaker is a closet neuroscientist masquerading as a lowly, hardworking production manager at Dell’Arte, a theatre and school in Blue Lake, California.  She spends most of her time now coordinating the busy production schedule of the Dell’Arte organization, but in a past life she studied biology, and she has remained fascinated with the physiological effects of theatre.  She wants to know what art does to the brain.

She’s not the only one.  But unlike many of the others, she decided to do something about it.  So on October 30, 2010, Shumaker pasted a bunch of electrodes to her forehead, hooked them up to a computer, and tracked her brain’s electrical signals while watching a live performance.  She recorded the humming of her synapses, so to speak, and now she’s trying to figure out what it means.

This is a follow-up post to an earlier post, “Syncing Brainwaves Through the Fourth Wall.”  After I wrote that, I heard about someone right in my own backyard who was actually attempting to examine brainwaves in conjunction with theatrical attendance.  Pretty cool stuff!  A version of this will appear in print in Theatre Bay Area magazine in October.

Working in conjunction with the psychology department at Humboldt State University, Shumaker is attempting to to use electroencephalography, more commonly known as EEG, to measure what’s the science world calls “affect,” and what most laypeople would call “emotion.”

“I’m looking at what are called alpha asymmetry scores,” Shumaker says.  “When you take readings of electrical activity through electrodes on the skin above the prefrontal cortex, you can tell by the changing differences between the scores on the left and right sides what is happening with affect, or emotion—so the actual emotional experiences of a person can be tracked, in a way, using these asymmetry scores.”

Shumaker believes that research like this may actually be able to shed some light on some of the fundamentals that make theatre so unique and transformative.

“Theatre is an excellent medium for helping us start to understand aesthetic experiences that are extremely complicated,” says Shumaker.  “Unlike simple conversation, which is complex enough, theatre combines everything from physical movement to auditory and visual stimuli.”

For what is viewed as a largely passive group, the audience is actually very active during any sort of interaction.  Think about it.  What is it like when you’re in a really good theatrical event?  Your body and your brain are on a sort of stationary rollercoaster—you experience emotions, physical responses, things both so big you can’t ignore them (a jerk when surprised) and so small you’d never notice (an eye twitch, a smirk).

What’s hard is that our standard methods of trying to assess an audience’s experience generally fall short in terms of being able to accurately gauge immediate response.  This can happen for a variety of reasons, ranging from general politesse to a wish to avoid quantifying their experience.

The way Shumaker puts it is, “Post-performance surveys and lobby chatter, from a social psychology standpoint, just aren’t super useful.  People have all kinds of tricks of memory and biases that they reflect when they talk about something.  Getting to something physiological gives us a clearer picture of what people are actually experiencing.”

In a way, brain research is the hard-science twin of Theatre Bay Area’s ongoing research into the intrinsic impact of art.  Whereas with intrinsic impact we’re talking about abstract concepts like empathy, emotion, social connection and intelligence, the avenues being explored in neural research are actually attempting to show the development of pathways, of connections.  And each strengthens, or has the potential to strengthen the other.

There’s a potential, hypothetically, many, many years from now, that you could ask somebody about the impact of a piece of art on, for example, their empathetic response to others, and then you could go back and look at their brain activity as they experienced the art piece.  Essentially, hypothetically, you could see empathy forming in the brain like a line drawing slowly filling with color.  Maybe.

Imagine a world in which particular answers on a paper (or online) survey about an event were correlated with known brain activity—actual changes in the brain occurring—and we would be able to reasonably extrapolate our immediate and long-term effects based on a few simple questions.  Or imagine further that we are able to image a particular section of the brain and actually watch the synapses connect, pathways form—and then go back later and see how (and if) that pathways are still in use.  What if there was a way to visualize increased empathy?  To showcase deeper critical thinking?

Right now, unfortunately, the technology isn’t really there (and it’s unclear what it would actually be able to show, if it were).  There are two technologies, fMRI and EEG, and each is both useful and problematic in its own way.  fMRI is very spatially exact (you can tell exactly where something is happening in the brain), but is both hard to use remotely (it’s bulky) and not terribly exact in terms of time (it measures changes in blood flow and temperature, which doesn’t happen instantaneously).  EEG, on the other hand, is great on time (can measure exactly when something happens), and you can see things down to parts of seconds, and it can travel (it’s just a set of electrodes that can be connected wirelessly to a computer), but you can’t pinpoint where in the brain something is happening (it measures impulses on the scalp, so can only get general positioning).  What is needed, really, is the best of both.

Of course, theatre people often don’t really need fancy machines to tell you what’s going on in the brains of the audience.  They just have to walk into a darkened hall during a show, “feel the room,” and they’ll know.

This is the type of phenomenon that really interests Kristin Shumaker.

“In the theatre,” says Shumaker, “as much time as I spend looking at what’s happening on stage, I also look at what’s going on in the house.  And now, I’m actually in the position to watch the people who have worked on the show, too.  So not only am I looking at the audience’s reaction, I’m looking at the reactions of the people who created the show to that audience’s reaction.”

If at its core art is about transformation of the individual, is it really so much to ask that that transformation be manifest, not simply theoretical – that in essence we be able to show what communication through art is actually, physically doing to people? Have we wandered into the world of science fiction?  Are we asking too much, boxing ourselves in, attempting to demonstrate a physical manifestation of something that is closer to affecting the soul?

Watching is how we learn everything we do.  It’s how we learn to use a spoon, it’s how we learn to stand, walk, ride a bike.  We watch our parents to learn how to live with others.  We gain empathy from seeing empathy in action, we gain prejudice from seeing prejudice take place.

In a way, theatre is a bottled-up version of the most basic moral and intellectual lessons of life.  As someone said, “Life without the boring bits.”  Another way of saying that is that theatre, and all the arts, are like an incredibly concentrated perfume, pulling in all of the most valuable things we hold within ourselves as human and placing them on stage for an audience to see, and dropping the boring bits at home.

Theatre artists may look at a lot of this and say, “Well, yeah.”  That’s often the case.  We are experts at inherently knowing the effect that we have on people, the power of the work that we do.  It’s not a coincidence that Kristin Shumaker is so alone in attempting to tackle this question of measuring brain activity while watching performance.

“I feel like I’m in a tough place right now because I’m doing this essentially as an amateur,” she says.  “But the professionals, so to speak, haven’t really thought about culture yet.  It seems to them like it’s just too big a question to take on, you know?  Too many variables.  But I think they’ll get there.”

When we say we are reflecting back the human experience on the audience, we’re not just blowing smoke. While Shumaker has yet to be able to scale up her work, and is also still sorting out how to take the piles of data generated by just one person watching one show and turn them into something analyzable, a lot of this research suggests that the storytelling mode that is so central to live theatre is literally causing brains to hum in tune, to transform, to engage.  To crackle with common electricity, creating a flickering synchronicity across audience members that allows us all to experience something together and engage in communal discourse–even while sitting silent in a darkened room.

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  1. says

    I think that watching and hearing are not all that goes on during live theatre. When you talk about “feeling the room” it must include something that is not conveyed by audio and images — those are shared by film and video. Possibly it is olfactory? The smell of fear, or sex, is something people do claim to sense. But perhaps the smells that we believe convey information and emotion to other mammals are working on us, too, below the level of consciousness. This would include smells generated in the people who are sitting silent and unseen around us, as well as emanating from the actors on stage– and by people back stage too, unless they are physically shielded from stage and audience.
    It would explain why we prize actors who “feel” over actors who “indicate”, and why a show can go “stale” even though the actors on stage are still performing well: the “old pros” in the wings and the backstage crew may have lost interest, and be joking or playing poker and generating emotional “noise” that is getting out into the audience along with the “signal” from the performers.

  2. says

    We theater people need not break our arms patting ourselves on the back about how well we understand our audiences. If we are such experts on that, why do so many of our shows flop? Why are we failing, massively, to compete for our audience’s attention and dollars?

    Do we do anything effective to gather actual data on audience response? Very, very rarely. Oh, no. We’d rather stand in the back of the house and “feel.” What’ we’re feeling, of course, is mostly whatever we want to feel, plus a healthy dollop of our prejudices about audiences–which very frequently are very, very negative.

    The idea that theater people are already expert on audience response is utter balderdash.

    • says

      Robert, a good point. I think, however, that there’s a difference between claiming to know whether a sdhow will be a hit or flop in advance and being able to guage whether a show is doing well on a particular night. The fact of the matter is that theatre companies often program for reasons that aren’t about getting a lot of people in the door (rightly or wrongly, that’s the protection that being a nonprofit can provide). They program to provoke, or to make people uncomfortable. In less noble settings, they program nepotistically, or because an angel investor makes a demand. For many theatres, the “safe” show that is guaranteed not to be a flop is the show they loathe most doing, because it’s often mainstream, or repetitive (think A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker). Where theatre people have, for a long while, have had some (nonspecific, admittedly) expertise, is in gauging whether a show is hitting their audiences in the way they wanted it to hit them.

      I was just having a conversation with someone who advocated for theatres abandoning the nonprofit model and living off of the approval (i.e. the admissions money) of the audience exclusively. I wonder what types of work would stop existing then…

  3. says

    Love that this is happening and wish it was on the same coast as I was. Have explored over time the numerous studies about the effects of art, performance, etc on our brains; Dana Foundation podcasts in particular I find riveting listens.

    At Woolly Mammoth we are wrestling with this measurement question around our attempts to document the “explosive engagement” our mission commits us to work toward achieving around every production. (Full disclosure: we participated in the Intrinsic Impact study.) I am fascinated by using something biological/physiological in conjunction with impact measurements and tools which note observable behaviors that indicate “explosion.” But my uber-larger question for artists involved in collecting this data is – why? What will the results do for you? Who are you making your work for and why are you making it? What is your perception of the artists’ role in society? What effect do you want to have or impact do you want to make?