Having a great time at the theatre defies logic in many ways. We’re surrounded by strangers, bombarded with unusual images and often faced with a wordless language of symbols. Yet, we generally laugh more, cry more and enjoy ourselves more at a live performance than when alone. We may even lose ourselves and feel connected to something larger. How does this happen?
Art expert Sarah L. Kaufman and her team writing in The Washington Post seek answers to the power of art through science. Art is considered the domain of the heart, but its transporting effects start in the brain, “where intricate systems perceive and interpret it with dazzling speed.”
We love to be entertained in a crowd, since social connection is one of the strengths of our species. In the process we learn from others by imitation. We’re keenly attuned to the emotions and actions of people around us, because our brains are designed for this. We crave social connection. And the cues we get from those around us help our brains make sense of our surroundings.
Social connection is a key function of our brains. It helps us make sense of human behaviour, a large part of which is evaluating movement and emotion within us and around us. Our brains like to share emotions with others. This is just one reason that seeing a live performance is a neural rush. With our brain’s capacity for emotion and empathy, even in the wordless art of dance we can begin to discover meaning or a story.
A story or narrative is another thing we love. Stories convey information from one’s brain to another’s effectively. We can learn vicariously through another’s experience from a safe space, without really being involved, which is why storytelling is so powerful.
Movement is irresistible in our experiencing art. Major parts of the brain are mainly concerned with movement and sending motor commands to our muscles so that our bodies can function and we can move as we need to for survival, notes Kaufman.
The brain is highly stimulated by motion, body language, facial expression, gestures — all the motor perceptions that could affect our collective and social survival. But we’re not only visually pulled to the movements of others. Somehow, we feel the movements in our bodies. When we watch a dancer spring across the stage, we may experience a “little internal hippity-hop,” too. According to the mirror neuron system theory, our brain automatically mimics other people’s actions.
Scientists believe we map other people’s actions into our own somatosensory system, “which conveys sensation through the brain and body and helps us feel the emotions we perceive in others as if they were our own.”
Those who study art, like neuroscientist VS Ramachandran proposes “several universal laws of art, or common patterns found in works of art across time and cultures.” These principles powerfully activate our visual centres, tapping into our evolved survival responses.
When we go to the theatre, we are entering into a highly controlled experience. There all the elements contribute to a kind of shared consciousness. In effect, “our billions of brain cells are interacting with billions of other brain cells, busily making the microscopic connections that yoke together the brains of those present with an almost inescapable force.”
Theatre enables us to enact story that “connects us with the performers, vicariously feeling and making meaning out of the actions on stage, responding to the magnetism of specific visual cues, experiencing heightened emotions as music and movement entwine and even bonding with those around us.” Such magical experience starts within the architecture of one brain.
(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)