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Theater on the Brain

ART TIMES July, 2005

Once upon a time, I happened to attend a performance of a one-act play — unfortunately, the title of the play has gone the way of all gray cells — and when I say I attended the performance rather than I saw it, I’m picking my words carefully, because I didn’t see it — I only heard it. The house lights went down, and the stage lights never came up. The performance was done completely in the dark, and the best of that was that it was in a little hole-in-the-wall theater where apparently they never saw a fire inspector, because they even had the exit signs turned off. Pitch black, voices and sounds of movement in the dark. Radio drama, live and in person! Except that it wasn’t really that at all. The magic element of breathing the same air as the actors was still there. And how wonderfully economical! No visual design or execution costs!

   Space still played a part. Perhaps it indicates suicidal tendencies in the cast, but they did move around, and because the space was intimate, the apparent arc of movement was wide. You could follow voices as they moved in space in front of you, and you quickly tuned in on all the little sounds you might otherwise have ignored — the shuffle of feet, clothes brushing on furniture, objects touching other objects. Perhaps I’m just obsessively visual, but after a while I had a clear picture in my mind of actors, setting, and so forth. Soon I was following the play in my head much as if I were reading it and imagining the performance, as I’m in the habit of doing when I read a play.

   Or so I thought.

   For many years, this experience of voices in the dark has been one of my favorite theatrical memories. However, it never occurred to me to ask myself, is there really something very special going on here? As I sat listening to the play in the dark, was there something in the internal experience that was different from the experience of reading the play with active visual imagination? Of course, as I mentioned, there were external aural cues from which to construct an internal visual experience, not just words on a page. But is that really different?

   Well, it seems that it is. This past Christmas my brother gave me a copy of The Bard on the Brain, by Paul Matthews and Jeffrey McQuain. A very thoughtful gift and I certainly appreciate it, and the only reason I didn’t get around to reading it until just now is that there were about three feet of books lined up ahead of it. But sooner or later all good things do come to pass (as do all bad things — thank you, Gautama) and I finally got into it. And there it is, right on page 100 — ah, round numbers, how I love round numbers!   the answer to my question. A wonderful brain-scan image showing where the brain reacts to language that we hear, as opposed to where it reacts to language that we read.

   Hearing words is profoundly different from reading them. Not just intellectually, not just emotionally, not even just esthetically; hearing words is physically different from reading them, and not just because you use your ears instead of your eyes. At the deepest levels of the brain, words that are heard are processed differently from words that are spoken. Yes, the brain centers that process vision and those that process sight are different. But surely once they pass the data on to the centers that process language, and thence on to those that process emotional and esthetic responses, it would be merging traffic on the neural freeway, right? Apparently not so. Even at the deepest levels of the brain, long past the visual and aural centers, the flow of neurophysiological activity differs markedly.

   So on to the next step, neuroscientists of the arts! Can we demonstrate the neurology of the live theatrical experience? Can we show that the brain uses different centers and different pathways to experience a movie than it does for a play? I expect that it would; the presence or absence of other human beings is such a powerful influence, so deeply rooted in thousands and millions of years of biological experience that I would be quite willing to believe that you cannot remove that element and still elicit the same response. Perhaps the theatrical response is physiologically rooted, deep in human and even mammalian experience. Now, wouldn’t that be nice?

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