For all the anticipation and excitement around Taylor Swift’s Eras tour this summer, fans have been reporting something strange.
In the Time article, Ewan McNay, a psychology professor at SUNY Albany, attributes the phenomenon to the fans’ brains producing too much norepinephrine, as happens when we get too emotionally aroused. A little norepinephrine helps us to remember, but if there’s too much, we forget.
In the Psychology Today article, Robert Kraft, a professor of cognitive psychology at Otterbein College, writes that the Swifties don’t remember the concert because they’re living in the moment of a peak life experience. Forgetting is a sign of “living our lives fully”, he writes. Remembering and experiencing are trade-offs, Kraft explains, we can do mostly one or the other, but not both fully. Memories are also location dependent, he writes. Without being in the same place, it’s harder to remember, just like when you forget why you walked into a room.
Experiencing flow or immersion is a major topic in audience research. Getting the audience to this level of being absorbed in the experience is often what artists strive to do (though it may not be the only goal). Immersive theater has gotten a lot of research attention, as an experience where we would expect the audience to be fully engaged. Kelsey Blair, Kelsey Jacobson, Scott Mealey, and Jenny Salisbury compared experiences of audiences in immersive and “regular” performances. In their study they found that immersive theater didn’t necessarily offer a more immersive or absorbing experience. Rather, the audience member’s state of mind was the primary driver. Instead, a “reflective internal state” led to a feeling of immersion. Erin Sullivan surveyed audiences watching a live-streamed performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. About 70% reported being “totally absorbed in the show” and about 74% reported having “an emotional response”. 81% also multi-tasked during the show, so it wasn’t necessary for them to give their full attention in order to feel emotionally connected and involved.
And then how do audiences come to understand what they’ve experienced? Lynne Conner (a fellow ArtsJournal blogger who gave me the opportunity that resulted in this blog, thank you, Lynne) has written extensively about the process of audiences talking about their experience as one of the primary ways that audiences interpret and make meaning from their arts experiences (see her book Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era). It can take time for audiences to find the words to describe their experience, and some people need to do the talking with other people. Matthew Reason has worked with non-language based ways for audience members to respond, such as making diagrams or drawings. This processing – talking, drawing – is part of, not separate from or in addition to, the experience for the audience. Talking or writing or drawing can be a thinking and interpretation and meaning-making process.
So what should we make of this forgetting phenomenon experienced by the concert fans? I think this is a good reminder that, as always, there is no single audience experience. While Time and Psychology Today found people whose experience flowed right through them, I’m sure that many people going to Taylor Swift concerts remember plenty of the details of the concert. I often don’t remember many details from a peak experience like going to a show I’ve been eagerly anticipating, but I remember how it felt. Audience members take pictures and videos to help them remember and enhance their experience. (Whether it works or not to take pictures to increase enjoyment is another matter; the research is split on the matter.) Posting on social media, talking with friends, sitting quietly reliving moments, blasting music and singing along, buying t-shirts – there are dozens and dozens of ways that audiences make their experiences meaningful parts of their lives.
How will you support each of your audience members find meaning from the experience you’re offering in a way that works for them?