Applying Cognitive Science to Performance Part 1

Production image from the 2011 National Theatre production of She Stoops to Conquer. Photo by Geraint Lewis.

One phenomenon that this research project is trying to understand is why audiences respond the way they do to the real on stage. My impressionistic sense of this – thinking about my own reactions – is that audiences experience some kind of energy or “thrill” – for lack of a better word – when they witness the appearance of something real on the stage. I would describe this “thrill” as an uplifting attention or pleasurable awareness of being in the presence of something “real.” Things that trigger this reaction include: celebrity actors (including being in the presence of an autobiographical storyteller), animals, plays “based on a true story,” real food,… the list goes on… really all the things that this study is interested in. Having identified this audience reaction (at least in a personal phenomenological way), I want to know why it happens. Why are we so delighted by these upsurges of the real?

To answer this question, I am taking a new approach and moving out of my usual theoretical field of phenomenology and venturing into cognitive studies. It seems to me that perhaps psychology can explain from either an evolutionary or cultural point of view why the real is important to us. From a layperson’s point of view, I might offer that it is not to our advantage in terms of survival to like being lied to. Honesty and the ability to trust another person is essential to building interpersonal relationships and strong social networks of partnership are advantageous to survival. So, if want to surround myself with truth-tellers, then I need to be able to discern truth.

However, if I look to dramatic texts to support this point of view, I see many many instances where liars are rewarded. Almost any Restoration comedy works this way. Characters frequently adopt disguises and tell lies to achieve their ends and these characters are invariably rewarded. Cf. A Bold Stroke for a Wife, The Country Wife, She Stoops to Conquer, School for Scandal. So how is this to be reconciled with the advantage of aligning oneself with truth-tellers. My first thought is that in each case the deception is temporary, adopted by virtuous characters for a specific end and then abandoned with the play’s final revelations. Clearly, we do enjoy and appreciate deception but perhaps only within a limited space. This might also explain (excuse) the drama as a whole as a pleasant temporary pastime of contained illusion and pretense. A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

It is my hope (expectation?) that somewhere in the literature in the field of cognitive science, there are studies pertaining to belief, pretending, lying, illusory tricks – clinical studies that examine a person’s ability to discern truth, or measure our reactions to real vs. fake objects/emotions/statements. Certainly my research assistant Kelsey and I are on the lookout.

In the meantime, there might be some insight to be found looking at human cognition more broadly and to see if we can apply the notion of image schemas to how we manage theatrical ontology and the distinction between the real and the fictional.

See “Applying Cognitive Science to Performance Part 2” as this thread develops…


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