Applying Cognitive Science to Performance Part 2

Shipping Container Architecture found on VECTRO AVE: Art and Design Blog

One concept that is central to our understanding of human cognition that seems very applicable to thinking about how audiences engage with theatre in general and with “the real” specifically is that of embodied minding. Embodied minding recognizes that we are minds inside bodies. Or what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls the “embodied eye/I.” The way that I think about the world is heavily informed by the fact that my mind/brain is embedded in a certain kind of physical situation in the world. As Lakoff and Johnson write, “Our sense of what is real begins with and depends crucially upon our bodies, especially our sensorimotor apparatus which enables us to perceive, move, and manipulate, and the detailed structures of our brains which have been shaped both by evolution and experience” (17). Cognitive science has started to list and describe some basic mind/body relationships — image schemas — that organize our perceptions of the world.

So for example, one image schema that has been identified by cognitive science is “CONTAINER.” Because I am a body with an inside and an outside, this is a pattern or a trope that I apply to the world around me. These epistemological structures are extended as metaphors into all aspects of our thinking. We work out ideas. We invite people into our lives (Hart 38). Other bodily schemas include: BALANCE, SOURCE-PATH-GOAL, FRONT-BACK. (In two of the books that I read, the names of the schemas are capitalized to represent the whole concept above the simple word.)

In terms of our perceptions of theatrical performance in general, F. Elizabeth Hart applies this epistemological schema of the CONTAINER and its implied corollary of BOUNDARY to the way that audiences manage the duality of actual worlds and fiction worlds.  In her analysis of the Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V, she observes that the environment of the Globe Theatre and the specific images of interiority and circles  evoked by the prologue communicate a specific spatial awareness to the audience. We are not living on the surface of the planet, of the world, but rather we are in the world. The wooden “O” surrounds us and we are positioned inside the “theatrum mundi.” The Globe Theatre is a kind of ontological container in this way. In this way, the play taps into our preprogrammed perceptual schemas to reinforce a particular view or understanding.

With regard to the perception of the real onstage, I think this image schema of the CONTAINER offers some insight. (A simple one to be sure but a start…) A key characteristic (if not the key characteristic) of authenticity is that it is what it says it is. Its surface appearance or outward show is identical to what it really is. Being equals seeming. Its inside matches its outside. And so, we recognize this consistency or matching across the CONTAINER schema to be a good thing. In this small way, we can define the real or the authentic in cognitive terms.

Useful? I hope so.

Question: Are these image schemas more than a particularly potent metaphor or trope? Knowledge of these schemas could be useful to directors and other creators to direct and reinforce our attention and understanding.  But what else can we do with them as analytical tools?

Works Cited

Hart, F. Elizabeth. “Performance, phenomenology, and the cognitive turn.” Performance and Cognition: Theatre Studies and the Cognitive Turn. ed. Bruce McConachie and F. Elizabeth Hart. (London and New York: Routledge, 2006) : 29-51.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy In The Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. (New York: Basic Books, 1999.)


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