Book Review, Vol 29 no. 1

Theatre and Cognitive Neuroscience

Theatre and Cognitive Neuroscience. Edited by Clelia Falletti, Gabriele Sofia, and Victor Iacono. Performance and Science: Interdisciplinary Dialogues Series. Series editors: John Lutterbie and Nicola Shaugnessy. London UK, New York NY: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016; Pp. 260.

Theatre and Cognitive Neuroscience emerged from a series of five conferences organized by the editors between 2009 and 2013, each essay resulting from “a series of encounters, collaborations, and mutual influences between researchers hailing from different geographical and disciplinary contexts” (xiv). In a collection representing scholars from seven countries and thirteen research areas, the editors do a good job at providing a wide range of scholarship as well as a structure that binds the twelve essays—divided into four parts—into a relatively coherent whole.

The editors focus on two main reasons for the importance of interdisciplinary work on theatre and neuroscience. The first is that theatre practice and scholarship touches upon a vast array of “human sciences,” including anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, history, and economics (xv). Thus, understanding how theatre affects—and is affected—by the human mind is a broadly worthwhile pursuit. The second reason stems from the editors’ desire to move theatre scholars away from the limitations of “ literary perspectives and interpretations” (xv). Because of this, the concept of embodied cognition is central to all of the essays in the book, and there are important ramifications to scholarship if one accepts embodiment as a starting point. In this, Theatre and Cognitive Neuroscience is certainly not unique: embodiment is the cornerstone of many explorations of the cognitive sciences in theatre scholarship and leads to the standpoint that there is no real brain/body split: the brain may be necessary for thought and experience but it is not sufficient.

However, as the title of this collection suggests, these essays are primarily concerned with what neuroscience can reveal about brain functions and how such functions relate to theatre and performance. The role that mirror neurons, mirror systems, and other such sensorimotor “resonances” play in the performance and reception of theatre is foundational to many of the essays in the book. Indeed, this foundation is highlighted by the fact that the first chapter is written by Maria Alessandra Umiltà, a member of the original research team that discovered mirror neurons in macaque monkeys. These particular neurons are motor neurons that—when a monkey watches another monkey or human perform certain actions—fire in the same way as they would if the monkey performed the action itself. While Umiltà does not address theatre directly, her essay provides a general discussion on the discovery, function, and meaning of mirror neurons. She also points out the distinction between mirror neurons directly observed in monkey and the proposed mirror systems indirectly observed and measured in humans, noting that in humans we see “a similar mechanism” (22) to mirror neurons but she is not claiming tohave directly studied individual mirror neurons in humans. There is compelling evidence for some kind of mirror system in humans, and it does make sense for theatre scholars to be interested in what such systems reveal about participation in, and observation of, theatre and performance, but often this distinction is glossed over in subsequent essays.

Umiltà’s essay introduces the first of the four sections, “Theatre as a Space of Relationships: A Neurocognitive Perspective,” which relies heavily on a notion of space as both a physical space shared by people as well as a neuro-space that becomes a “shared space of action” (12). This allows for knowledge that is both pre-linguistic and totally embodied. The second section, “The Spectator’s Performative Experience and ‘Embodied Theatrology,’” argues, in general terms, that the act of spectating is never, in any ontological sense, passive and that every experience is, indeed, an embodied one. Section three, “The Complexity of Theatre and Human Cognition,” focuses on performer and actor training, while still being grounded in the relationship between the performer and the observer. Victor Jacono’s introduction to this third section argues, compellingly, for the relevance of scientific understanding on how the brain works and, in particular, how “knowing is done” (105). He suggests that “actor training is a systemic research process leading to a modification of the self, opening to the possibility of entering with the totality of one’s being in a new aesthetic and practical relation with reality” (105). While the tone of Jacono’s introduction occasionally verges into the metaphysical, his assumptions are solidly based on a current understanding of the brain’s neuro-plasticity and the ways in which learning a new tool creates physical change in a subject. The final section, “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Applied Performance,” presents several inquiries into how theatre can be used in therapeutic settings. In particular, it examines theatre and performance training as potential therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorders and Parkinson’s Disease.

The individual essays range across discussions of specific experiments to more philosophical musings on things like time, Antonin Artaud, and the nature of theatre as therapy. The former, more data-driven essays are, in large part, what set this book apart and make it an important, if sometimes uneven, collection. Examples of exciting, interdisciplinary work include that of Giorgia Committeri and Chiara Fini on how the act of observing a human being within a three dimensional scene actually helps us organize spatial distances at a neuronal level and Corinee Jola’s and Matthew Reason’s fascinating analysis of data on both the neurological and the phenomenological experiences of live performance, focusing on notions of proximity and interaction. Also important is the discussion, by Gabriele Sofia, Silvia Spadacenta, Clelia Falletti, and Giovanni Mirabella, about several ongoing experiments designed to test for ways in which actor training affects reaction times in various circumstances. As the first experimental study designed to “show how theatre training modifies the neurobiology of action” (138), this is a particularly important chapter. So too is the research on theatre training as a tool in Parkinson’s therapy by Nicola Modugno, Imogen Kusch, and Giovanni Marabella, leading to the conclusion that while there is no evidence that such training leads to significant neuronal improvement among Parkinson’s patients, there is measurable improvement in the patients’ phenomenological experience of their own bodies and interactions with others.

Set against these excellent studies, some of the less scientific essays in Theatre and Cognitive Neuroscience seem both out of place and not entirely convincing. Additionally, the regular slippage between the concepts of mirror neurons and mirror systems in humans is not surprising, but remains something of a problem I often encounter in this area of research. However, a far more interesting issue is the somewhat utopian notion, underlying many of the chapters, that mirror neurons (or systems) necessarily equal empathy and that empathy necessarily equals a greater application of ethical care and understanding toward others. (Indeed, this sensibility underlies many other essays and books on the convergence of theatre and cognitive science and is an assumption that deserves further critical examination.) Still, the editors have put together an important collection for several reasons. The first, and most banal, is that it offers significant resources though the footnotes. Hundreds of studies and experiments are cited throughout, allowing one to explore some of the most up-to-date research on neuroscience and performance. Second, this collection presents a number of voices that many North American scholars may be unfamiliar with, revealing an alternate genealogy of research, approaches, and methodologies that will prove highly useful for anyone interested in this research area. Finally, the book presents concrete examples of theatre scholars and scientists working together through experimentation and the accumulation of data. These models can help those of us committed to the collusion between cognitive sciences and theatre scholarship to stop simply calling for such a practice (which is relatively easy) and to take the next step in a truly multidisciplinary way (which is much harder).

Peter Wood, PhD
Independent Scholar
Head of Electronic Initiatives/Listserv Manager,

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 29, Number 1 (Fall 2016/Winter 2017)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar