A paper I gave at the International Theater Festival of Kerala, 2013

Movement Theater and Neuroscience – dancing a community of mind
Wendy Jehlen
Artistic Director
ANIKAYA Dance Theater

“Where the hand goes, the eyes follow
Where the eyes go, the mind follows
Where the mind goes, from there comes emotion
Where emotion emerges, there is the essence.”
-The Natya Shastra

Thousands of years ago, the sage Bharata expressed what practitioners of theater knew well – that performance, particularly movement-based performance, creates a vicarious experience for the audience, and that the performer’s job is to elicit this response, through the creation of a shared emotional state. In the last two decades, neuroscientists have discovered a physical basis for how this happens.

In the past few months, I have been learning about a series of discoveries relating to a subset of neurons called “mirror neurons.” These are cells in the brain that appear to react to observed action as if it were experienced action. These neurons were initially discovered by accident. A team of neuroscientists in Italy, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, was looking at motor neurons in macaque monkeys. Rizzolatti’s team was recording the firing of neurons when the monkeys would pick up peanuts. One day, one of the scientists entered the enclosure and picked up a peanut. The monkey’s neurons fired just as if the monkey itself had picked up that peanut. This led to a whole new area of study in neuroscience, which has led to theories related to autism, learning, the development of language, and even a new theory on the origin of human culture.

When we perform an action, our motor command neurons fire to “command” us to complete the action. But, when we watch someone else perform this same action, a subset of our motor command neurons will fire as if we ourselves were performing the action. Our neurons are actually adopting another person’s perspective.

“If somebody touches me on my hand, a neuron in the sensory region of the brain fires. But the same neuron, in some cases, will fire when I simply watch another person being touched. So, it’s empathizing with the other person being touched…so the question then arises, why do I not get confused and feel that I am being touched merely by watching another person being touched? I empathize with that person but I don’t actually feel that I am being touched. That’s because you’ve got receptors in your skin going back into your brain saying that (you are not being touched), so empathize with the other person, but do not actually experience it. There’s a feedback signal that vetoes the signal of the mirror neuron. But, if you remove the feedback signal, you anesthetize my arm… so the arm is numb, there’s no sensation coming in, if I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand. In other words, you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings… Not in some metaphorical sense, all that’s separating you from another person is your skin… you are actually quite literally connected to each other by your neurons.” Our separation is only skin deep, literally. A good performance takes the audience out of its skin.

When we talk about the difference between dance theater and text-based theater, speech can also be an inhibitor. The tongue itself is connected neurologically to the language centers of the brain, where thought is processed rationally, methodically. Speech is rational. It talks around emotions. It is an extra layer of skin between the performer and the audience. To be sure this can be overcome. But, it is rarely the words in theater that truly move. It is the meaning behind those words. Dance goes directly to that meaning, bypassing language.

After a performance of The Knocking Within in Boston, an audience member told me that, “At one point during the show I noticed pain in my fingers. It was only then that I realized I had my hands clutched together, fingers interwoven, squeezing against my wedding ring. I was completely unaware of the physical response I was having to the tension unfolding on stage until my fingers went numb.” She had been taken out of her skin. She had entered the world on stage. And just like a real experience, it entered her dreams: “The morning after seeing The Knocking Within I awoke, keenly aware that I had had a disturbing dream about a relationship. I could sense the tension and dissatisfaction of the dream, but no distinct images or scenarios were present. There was a sense of something being stirred up or disturbed deep within me, something that connected me to the visceral portrayal of a relationship spiraling down and apart.”

Which brings me to the second realm of neuroscience which I have found myself studying recently – the neuroscience of dreams. In all cultures, dreams have been studied, analyzed, and understood in widely different terms as portents of things to come, as memories of past lives. Dreams are seen as windows into parallel realities. But, what is actually happening on a neurological level?

At the Dream Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there have been some interesting and pertinent findings. A study was done with mice who were attached to a machine that mapped the neurons firing in their brains as they ran a particular maze. They were then also watched as they slept. The readings while they were dreaming matched those recorded when they were running the maze. Then, the mice were sent through a different maze and again the firing of their neurons was mapped. Again they slept. This time, however, the firing of the neurons during their dreams was not the same as the second maze, not the same as the first maze, but rather a combination of the two. The implication is that they had created yet a third maze in their dreams. They had juxtaposed the two mazes in their minds, though not their conscious minds. These scientists posit that this is what our brains do while we are dreaming. We remix reality. We layer experiences and create new experiences. The result is sometimes frightening, sometimes just odd, and sometimes it is an epiphany.

As artists, as performers, we do for society what dreaming does for the individual mind. We put together ideas, images, movements, sounds that others might not think to put together. We dream.

As performers we open our own minds, hearts, bodies and invite the audience in. Through the body, we take away the skin, the barrier of the individual body, the individual rational mind, of language, and guide the audience into a common space, the community of mind. We guide the audience into an experience of shared humanity, where we experience the unexpected, where we can come to a visceral understanding. In all cultures around the world, the dancer, the shaman, the priest, are all conduits for something greater than the individual, be it a spirit, a god, or shared emotional experience.

There are different ways in which the brain processes observed action, perhaps depending on the nature of the action itself, or at least the spectator’s understanding of the action. The mirror neuron system of the observer is triggered when the observer understands the intention of the actor. The canonical neuron system is triggered when the observer does not understand the intention, or when there is no visible purpose to the action. For example, picking up a peanut versus opening and closing the hand. Both allow the observer to imitate the movement, but only the mirror neuron system involves understanding or empathy.

There has been a movement in the US in particular to take emotion out of art. This movement, exemplified by choreographers such as Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham, attempted to make art without emotion, focusing solely on form and shape. Cunningham went so far as to make his choreography and selection of music and costuming random. Later in life, he used a computer program to create choreography for him. This movement has infected the art world to such an extent that many choreographers whose work clearly has emotional content will claim that they do not want to “project” their own emotions onto the audience. Essentially that they wish not to connect with the audience, but rather to leave audience members inside their own individual worlds.

My hypothesis would be that this kind of art may actually trigger a different system in the brain – the canonical neuron system as opposed to the mirror neuron system. In the case of dance, a performance that triggers the canonical neuron system allows the audience to experience the shapes and contours of the bodies of the dancers as shapes and contours, but not to access their experiences as fellow human beings.

To me, this defeats the purpose. It is like taking god out of religion. All that is left is form without function, purposeless movement which does not make our mirror neurons fire, which does not create a connection between people, which does not create a community of mind.

The interactions in the mirror neuron system are complex. They make up a process that was described thousands of years ago in the Natya Shastra and other texts on abhinaya and rasa theory. Today this process is being described on a cellular level in labs around the world. Neuroscience has only begun to scratch the surface. And there is a great deal of insight that could be provided by performers.

In one study on mirror neurons, researchers showed subjects who were either ballet dancers or Capoeiristas (practitioners of the Brazilian martial art form of Capoeira) videos of both Capoeira and ballet and mapped the reaction of their brains, particular their mirror neurons. They also showed these videos to a control group of subjects that had practiced neither art form. They found that the mirror neuron system “integrates observed actions of others with an individual’s personal motor repertoire, and…that the human brain understands actions by motor simulation.”

This study missed the key difference between ballet and Capoeira. Unlike ballet, Capoeira is a dance of community, of cause and effect. Its movements are not intended to be done alone. Even if a Capoeirista does practice alone, he always imagines himself moving in relation to, reacting to a “ghost” player. I would be very interested to see a study of the Capoeirista’s mind that attempts to understand how this interplay plays out neurologically. What centers of the brain are involved in a Capoeirista, who understands the interplay, watching a game versus a non-Capoeirista who may see only the movement?

The same question can be applied to dance theater. If the audience’s mirror neurons are making the audience experience what the characters are experiencing, what happens when there is more than one character? More than one perspective portrayed simultaneously? More than one emotion? Both the individuals and the juxtaposition of their experiences, their emotions, their bodies, evoke emotion from the audience. When we have more than one person on stage, the emotions portrayed can be bigger than the individual.

These are perspectives that can only be provided by people who are inside these art forms. Who understand them beyond a superficial level. Ramachandran says that the discovery of mirror neurons has blown away the wall between science and the humanities. Perhaps we would do well to tear down the wall between science and the arts as well.

To me, science does not demystify, in the sense of taking away my sense of mystery. Science allows me to deepen my wonder at the awesome complexity that is our lived reality. It makes me feel like Arjun must have felt when Krishna revealed himself on the battlefield. My mind is thrown open.

Ramachandran, V. S. The neurons that shaped civilization. http://www.ted.com/talks/vs_ramachandran_the_neurons_that_shaped_civilization.html
NOVA science NOW. Mirror Neurons. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/mirror-neurons.html
Khalil, Elias. The Mirror-Neuron Paradox: How Far is Sympathy from Compassion, Indulgence, and Adulation? Monash University, MPRA Paper No. 3961, posted 07 November 2007 http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/3961/

Calvo-Merino B., D.E. Glaser, J. Grezes, R. E. Passingham and P. Haggard. Action Observation and Acquired Motor Skills: An fMRI Study with Expert Dancers. Cerebral CortexVolume 15, Issue 8, pp. 1243-1249.

Leave a Reply