The way we live our lives is based on memories and stories that we tell each other as part of our day‑to‑day interactions. And the way memories and stories are made is a complicated, highly personal process sparked from experiences, from learning, and from the artifice that surrounds us. Experiences of arts and culture play a fundamental role in the way a person is, and functions, and is part of a community. This reality stretches across the spectrum from the neurological to the biological, from the more ephemeral aspects of the individual experience in the moment and on outward to their partner, their family, and the entirety of their community, over time and forever.
Sometimes, that experience in the moment goes by the name “intrinsic impact,” which is set up as the intellectual, emotional, social, and empathetic impact of a piece of art on an individual person—and is placed in a sort of opposition to “extrinsic” or “instrumental impact,” which is the interaction of the arts with other things, other sectors, and its functional role in producing other outcomes. While this dichotomy, and certainly this opposition, is a false one, it formally or informally articulates a lot of the tension those in the arts carry about their role and place in American society. Does art exist for the impulse of the arts? For the experience of the individual? For the benefit of the community? The answer, in all cases, is, “Yes.” That said, teasing out why get in arguments about the “right” role for the arts clarifies both the necessity of the arts and the challenges placed upon that necessity by our unique, practical, instrumental American-ness.
Close your eyes. Think about some arts experience, far back. Something that stuck with you from five or ten years ago. An arts experience that you had.
Start thinking with your sense of sight. See what you saw then. What were the colors that were there? What was the focal point of your attention? If you force your brain off of that focal point, what else was happening in your field of vision when you were experiencing that piece of art?
Add in your sense of hearing. When you were in that space, can you remember anything about the noise in that moment? If it’s a theatrical experience, can you remember, either specifically or abstractly, the sounds that were happening? If it’s a visual arts experience, what was the space like?
Add in smell. Can you remember any smells from that? What did the seats smell like? Was there dust in the air? Was there someone wearing perfume nearby?
What about touch? Can you remember any tactile sensations? Did your fingers brush against a jacket? Can you feel what it was like to have your feet on the floor? Can you feel air moving past you?
And the hardest one, taste. Is there any specific kind of taste or twinge?
Just sit with that for just a minute. OK. Open your eyes. What happened there?
Whatever story is in your head now is only part of the whole story, but it’s the most essential part, and if you think about the different aspects of what you’ve conjured, it’s phenomenal. These are the residue of a whole experience; your memory is not made up of everything that happens in a moment. Your memory is made up of a selected set of things that you were paying enough attention to that they stuck with you. Everything about you, every memory you have, every belief you hold, every decision that you make—every one comes from a set of interactions between the external world and one of your five senses by way of the over 100 billion nerve cells in your body, 80 billion of which are in your brain.
Nerves are these fascinating cells. They don’t act like any other cells in the body. A normal cell’s sort of like a globule, with a nucleus and mitochondria and all the parts you learned in grade school. A nerve cell, however, is flexible. It’s as if you took that standard grade school globule and you spread it out like a sun canopy, the nucleus still in the middle, and the mitochondria, and all the things that make a nerve be a nerve, but now, at the ends, all of these really long tendrils. These can be huge—a single nerve cell runs down your whole leg—and they’re called axons. And at the ends and along the length of the axon, you have these little hairs called dendrites, which reach out and touch other dendrites. And it’s in these moments, at these connections, which are called synapses, that your memories happen.
There are 100 billion little tiny things in your body, and the things that happen to them and the ways that they interact with each other are literally everything that makes you you from the moment you’re born until the moment you die. Everything you know and feel and hope and dream and mourn—they’re all tied up in the way tiny dendrites touch each other and fire.
In your brain, there are between 250 and 500 distinct areas. One analogy for the brain is as the most disorganized, crisscrossed pile of wires you can possible imagine, miraculously all densely packed and brain shaped, touching each other and working relatively flawlessly and with this dense interconnectivity: any part of your brain has a 50 percent chance of being connected to any other part of your brain. It is the most improbable of things.
The premise of learning and of memory is that something that starts as a physical interaction is translated to a neurological impulse. Something touches the skin on your arm, setting off impulses in the nerves in your arm, which runs up to your brain, which interprets it, and if it’s something that’s worth keeping as a memory (a hot iron, say), then a lot of other processes happen at different parts of your brain that solidify it. A hot burner gets logged, a piece of lint gets discarded. Short term memory—that lint—is like having a bunch of slippery stones, and trying to put them into a stack, and they’re constantly trying to fall apart, and so you keep having to put them back into the stack. If you stop paying attention to stacking the stones, they fall, disappear and everything goes back to the way that it was. Long term memory—the iron—creates physical change in your body, both chemical and genetic. The neurons that are associated with a specific memory can genetically change; they get more robust if used more often. The more nutrition they get, through influxes of spinal fluid, the thicker the walls become, and the more resilient. Myelin sheaths, which are basically natural insulation tubes to protect the neuron, grow and thicken, protecting these neurons from damage.
This description, perhaps, makes that neuron sound like a precious photograph slotted into a protective folder and nestled in a filing cabinet. That’s not the case. Instead, think of it more as a million photographs, all torn up into little tiny pieces, all spread across the floor of your room, and when something happens that draws your attention to a single small fragment of the image, all the other parts of that photo fly to it, Harry Potter Accio-style, and it’s suddenly up in front of your face.
Take, for example, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can be thought of, in this context, as a person losing his or her ability to voluntarily stop a memory from being recalled. A loud noise involuntarily sets off a cascade of events that makes your memory come together in front of your face without you realizing it’s going to happen. It’s part of why it’s such a distressing condition; we view this lack of control as unnatural and unnerving, catching us off-guard, driving all sorts of adrenaline and other chemicals into production before we’re even particularly aware of what is happening to us.
PTSD highlights that our brain has, as we have, evolved at a steady but evolutionary pace. Starting about 50,000 years ago with the dawn of agriculture and everything that’s happened since then, our habits and our practices have been evolving at an incredibly fast pace, and our brain, truthfully, has not kept up. The casing and the operating system of our brain are both ancient, but the exercises we put it through are decidedly not. In that context, it’s amazing that we are doing as well as we are. But even as we do well, relatively speaking, we have vestiges of things that probably are not the best things for us to have anymore—for example, there was a natural need, 50,000 years ago, for you to be able to immediately call up the last time you were attacked by a wild animal and understand that that was something you didn’t want to have happened to you again. It’s a biological evolutionary response inside a modern frame, with challenging results.
So why bring up PTSD? Because the moments that have the strongest potential to create long‑term memories—the things that you learn the best, which become the memories that form your world view and drive your understanding of others—are the things that are the most compelling. They are the imperatives, the things that received your close attention, the things that you want to know the resolution of, or that are so powerful in the moment that you can’t ignore them and they get imprinted on you.
You see, memory is a constant competition. It’s true that dendrites increase in size and insulation when activated, and that those dendrites grow from branches of frequently activated neurons. But the opposite is also true, because the brain grows like a tree, and like a tree it has a natural, self-preserving process of pruning. This is not a metaphor—this is a physical process. Over time, neurons accumulate calcium build up, which is usually flushed away in the influx of spinal fluid delivered when a neuron is activated. If the neuron doesn’t activate often enough, the calcium builds up to certain amount, at which point the neuron releases an enzyme that tells itself to implode, and then it implodes, and the waste is drawn out of the body. And the memory is gone.
The more ways that you learn something, the more pathways are built between all of these neurons, the more dendrites are touching dendrites are touching dendrites. If you have a neuron that activates 20 other neurons, that suddenly means that you’ve got 21 neurons that are getting blood flow, which then activate neurons and so, the network itself reinforces itself. As different interconnected structures are strengthened, they form values systems, and ways of viewing and understanding the world, and a system of reinforcement.
The arts, in general, always traffics in multiple senses. That makes what’s happening stickier. Singular delivery, particularly of things that challenge a person’s values systems (which is to say, that run counter to the strong network of neurons ready to ignite and secure a new memory a place in the brain), is challenging—but the arts, complex and multisensory, can break through. We traffic in beautiful, complex, meaning-laden memories. We build directed representations of concrete or abstract parts of the world, pushed from artist to audience with the express goal of having them tumble around and stick inside a person’s head.
The memory of an arts experience starts from the moment a person first discovers that that experience is possible and it extends forever. We aren’t, therefore, talking about two hours’ traffic on a stage; we’re talking about a lifetime opportunity to experience and re‑experience those hours forever.
Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate and a behavioral economist, has this concept of the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” The experiencing self is the one that experiences things in real time that logs the actual moments of the experience. The remembering self is the one that reorganizes all of those things into the packages of memory that you carry with you—which is to say the neurons that activate at any given time. The remembering self is the one that makes all the decisions and the experiencing self doesn’t have anything to do with it at all.
He says, essentially, that we don’t actually choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. Further, he says that even when we’re thinking about the future, we aren’t thinking about future experiences, we’re thinking about anticipated future memories. Everything is structured around the things we’re going to keep and the things that are going to inform the way that we move in the world.
Memories are powerful things and they are modulated by what you attend to at any given time. You remembered the seating, you remembered the food, you remembered the colors. In my case, I have a very clear memory of going to see Les Miserables when I was eight years old. I have this deep visceral experience of the closeness to my family that I felt in that moment. I can remember the deep red of the seats and how they contrasted with the burgundy of my mom’s trench coat. I can remember the feel of her trench coat under my fingers when I squeezed her leg because I was crying, and the smell of this woman a few rows behind us who had this perfume on that my dad commented on. I can remember this brilliant white light, this stretch of white fabric falling down, and this beautiful noise. I didn’t understand what was happening.
When I got older and I went and saw Les Mis again, I was, “Oh, my God. This was totally about a war.” I was like, “Whoa, there was a rebellion going on.” I definitely didn’t get any of that—it’s like when I watched Dirty Dancing and didn’t understand there was a whole abortion subplot, and another whole subplot about a pickpocketing couple.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because what I remembered had little to do with the specifics of the arts experience and everything to do with feelings of love, and companionship, and family. And then it’s there, in your brain, and it comes back at all sorts of odd moments. Crazy, amazing ways. They impact behavior forever. Sometimes, it’s totally visible to people. Most times, it’s not.
Do you listen to the podcast The Memory Palace? In one episode, they tell this story of an opera singer named Jenny Lind that speaks to art and memory. In 1850, a guy named George Upton, who would become a music critic, basically snuck into a Boston concert hall because he was so obsessed with hearing this woman sing. She was a British woman and an opera singer who has been brought to the U.S. on a 96-stop tour by P.T. Barnum, all up and down the Eastern seaboard over the course of a year. It was a sensation. Tickets were sold for astronomical sums. Some places, they oversold and people rioted. She was basically the Lady Gaga of her time, and she was considered the best singer of the 19th century by certain people. And fifty-eight years later, Upton, when he was a much older critic, wrote in great detail about his experience of that time. He talked about her gliding down the stage with constant grace. He talked about her voice which he claimed was full volume and extraordinary range. That peculiar, penetrating quality that made the faintest tones, clearly audible.
He talked about her voice being like a lark’s, rich and sonorous. He said, “I have borne in my heart and memory across two generations this woman. She remains for me still the one peerless singer I’ve heard on the concert stage.”
But here’s the thing: Jenny Lind’s entire career occurred before audio recording, so now, 150 years later, there is literally no physical memory left of her—and there wasn’t for him when he was remembering her, either. He could not turn on a song and say, “Yeah, I totally remember that. That’s exactly what it sounded like.” There was nothing.
The only thing that he had, after 60 years, was this repeated memory in his head that had lodged there and had driven him into a career and into a life of music criticism and had become one of the most dominant parts of his life.
And so—the nature of memories is not that they are, generally speaking, made up of the initial experiences we’ve had. Unless you’re gifted with a photographic memory, most of your experiences are strong flashes and general feeling.
In the arts, we can aid in the creation of those flashes and that feeling, because representation in art is not random. Every brush stroke, every arm movement, every scripted line is particular—representations of real life, but curated, abstracted, narrowed, honed to increase impact. If you are representing a living room, you might do it very photo realistically, but you still have lighting that is specifically highlighting a book, or you have Chekhov’s gun on the table, or a particular shadow on the window. You dictate focus. And that drives not only the specificity of the memory, but the specificity of the feelings and emotions around the memory. They therefore, in a very real way, drive empathy.
There are these cells in your brain called mirror neurons, which are these specific types of nerve cells in all different areas of your brain. These curious cells act like a mirror; when a speaker is telling story, a listener’s brain is going through a ghost version of the actions, neurological actions mimicking the hooks of the story—neurologically imagining picking up a cup of coffee, smelling it, tasting it, and so on, even though the body’s not doing it. The speaker and the listener couple, neurologically.
Researchers have watched this happen using fMRI. They record the brain activation patterns of a speaker recording a story—what lights up when telling a story about walking a dog—and then they play that story back to a listener in the fMRI, and watch that listener’s brain go through the same sequence, almost like the listener is practicing what it’s like to be the speaker—which is to say, walking in the speaker’s shoes.
That’s the physical manifestation of empathy—the living of another person’s experience. And if you cross this concept of mirroring through memory with the idea that multisensory memories are stickier and easier to re-access and retain, then you can understand that empathy is created more strongly if you have a mirroring experience that is multi‑sensory, that is complex, that ignites different, supplemental senses along the way. So, if you experience another person’s life, however briefly, however outwardly passively, then you’ve opened an avenue to a shifted perspective.
Researchers have started studying things like goose bumps, shivers down the spine. Those actually are the result of physical changes in the brain. They’re the result of neurons reacting and growing and changing, based on moments of high arousal in all sort of senses.
One thing that one researcher noted is that the arts are interesting because they act like something that they’re not. What the researcher says is, “Music recruits neural systems of reward and emotion that are similar to those known to respond to specific biologically relevant stimuli.” What does that mean? It means that things like food or sex—base concerns of ours—and those that are artificially activated by things, like drugs—and the arts all work similarly. Which is odd, because the arts are neither strict biological imperatives nor are they a pharmaceutical enhancement. Your body reacts to it with as much urgency as it would food if you were hungry. This means that, for a largely passive-looking group of people (like an audience in a theater), there’s actually a tremendous amount going on. It takes a lot of work to be an audience member in the theater.
To close, sensory experiences are how we learn everything we do. It’s how we learn to ride a bike and to walk and to live with other people. It’s how we learn empathy and how we learn prejudice.
In theater, we can bottle up the basic moral and intellectual lessons of life and to remove all of the extraneous bits that can cloud those in real life interactions. Theater and all the arts are like an incredibly concentrated perfume. You put in it all the most valuable things that we hold with ourselves as human beings, and you place it out there and hope that people suck it in.
Theater artists may say, “Well, that’s why I do what I do.” Of course, that’s true, but when we say we are reflecting back the human experience on the audience, we’re not just blowing smoke. At its best, live theater is literally causing brains to hum in tune. It is actually physically transforming people in real time.
I’m fascinated with this idea of myth. Myth gets a bad rap these days, but theater is the telling of myths in this true, grand sense. Theater is an opportunity for heroes to go on a journey. It’s an opportunity for people to dance with death. It’s an opportunity for people to experience magical moments and impossible things and navigate a world that is not their own.
There’s a book called A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong that I was re‑reading recently. Basically, what Armstrong argues is that myth is another word for the way that human beings have, over our history, made sense of the world. Back in ancient Greek times, ancient Roman times, the way that they made sense of things that didn’t make sense to them is they created a story about it. They vested that story with the faith that in believing that story they would be able to move through their lives.
Then, the age of reason happened. Everything that came after that and the Puritan impulse and everything that says the art is superfluous. Things like mythology or religion have a very important but also marginalized part of life.
Today, the word myth is used to describe something that’s not true. When we hear that gods walked on earth or dead men strode out of tombs or seas miraculously parted or an entire nation sank into the ocean, we think of those as incredible and demonstrably untrue stories—and in doing that we miss the point. We have developed a scientific view of history, and we’re concerned above all about what actually happened, which Kahneman would call focusing on the experience instead of the memory.
“Myths,” Armstrong says, “show us how to behave.” The best theater is real and surreal all at once. When I experience a great piece of art, all of my synapses start firing, including ones that are steps and steps and steps removed from the initial sensory input of that moment.
I get a little more clarity about the things that are going on in me—and also the things that are going on out there in the world. I get clarity about the things I’m worried about, and I get clarity about the things that are rising up in this community in which I exist. I get worried, and I get clarity about things that are confusing to me or exciting to me.
I learn about other people’s points of view and how they relate to mine, what grief looks like, what love looks like, what hope looks like. When I experience a great piece of art, it’s useless to try and explain it to someone who wasn’t there because very often when you do that, you end up describing the experience instead of the memory. Or as Seamus Heaney says:
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open
Because if you try explain it, you’re explaining what happened, not what happened to you. You’re talking about the plot instead of the myth.
And so, one more myth for you. In the southern rain forests of India, there’s a sect of Brahmins who have been singing the same songs for thousands and thousands of years. They pass the songs downward through the generations, taking care that the exact length, tonality, order and speed of sounds are maintained.
It’s a very, very careful process, and it’s painstaking and entirely inefficient, but it is also absolutely necessary—because these songs that they sing are so old that they’ve lost comprehension of the language inside the songs. The music has literally outlived the knowledge of the words, which makes the singing a true act of faith. They’re passing down the non‑literal attributes of that experience. Within this art is the only remnant of a society whispering forward from generations ago. It is the strong bone latticework on which to arrange all the fragments of time happening now and yet to come—a way to understand their experience in this moment amidst generations and generations of their people.
There’s something precious about this ability so clearly and so specifically see the after image of life and to understand your role in a larger place in time. You can understand the before and the after, and you can understand the wonder of being in this moment.
As school children were, at one point or another, asked to stare at an American flag. You stare at it and you stare at it and you stare at it, and then you look at a blank wall, and you see the after image of that flag. It requires you to hold your eyes open until they swell up with tears. Then, close them and see what has been imprinted in your brain. So should it be with all our heart.
This is not to say that everything needs to be deep or brooding or steeped in sadness or significance, but it’s to say that the best art, which is to say the best of what we do, is memorable and that that memorableness is not a side effect—it is the goal. The transformation is not a side effect—it is the goal. Forward movement, the pursuit of dreams and visions for a better and different way of living. That should be the goal of great art and great arts organizations.
When we make a difference with our stories to other people—when we make a difference in the way that other people see the world—we must celebrate. In her last line of her book, Armstrong give this call of arms. She says, “If professional religious leaders can no longer instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight into our lost and damaged world.”
I don’t know about you, but to me, it feels pretty lost and damaged right now. And so we have our charge. Let us not be disheartened. Let us celebrate our ability to bring fresh insight, and heal, and challenge, and go forth and tell the stories that we can tell, bring the hope that we can bring, make synapses sizzle, and transform all of the people that we touch into the best people that they can be.
Based on a speech given at Southwestern University in December 2016. This speech draws in part from previously published writing.