September 12, 2011 By

She’s not the only one.  But unlike many of the others, she decided to do something about it.  So on October 30, 2010, Shumaker pasted a bunch of electrodes to her forehead, hooked them up to a computer, and tracked her brain’s electrical signals while watching a live performance.  She recorded the humming of her synapses, so to speak, and now she’s trying to figure out what it means.

This is a follow-up post to an earlier post, “Syncing Brainwaves Through the Fourth Wall.”  After I wrote that, I heard about someone right in my own backyard who was actually attempting to examine brainwaves in conjunction with theatrical attendance.  Pretty cool stuff!  A version of this will appear in print in Theatre Bay Area magazine in October.

Working in conjunction with the psychology department at Humboldt State University, Shumaker is attempting to to use electroencephalography, more commonly known as EEG, to measure what’s the science world calls “affect,” and what most laypeople would call “emotion.”

“I’m looking at what are called alpha asymmetry scores,” Shumaker says.  “When you take readings of electrical activity through electrodes on the skin above the prefrontal cortex, you can tell by the changing differences between the scores on the left and right sides what is happening with affect, or emotion—so the actual emotional experiences of a person can be tracked, in a way, using these asymmetry scores.”

Shumaker believes that research like this may actually be able to shed some light on some of the fundamentals that make theatre so unique and transformative.

“Theatre is an excellent medium for helping us start to understand aesthetic experiences that are extremely complicated,” says Shumaker.  “Unlike simple conversation, which is complex enough, theatre combines everything from physical movement to auditory and visual stimuli.”

For what is viewed as a largely passive group, the audience is actually very active during any sort of interaction.  Think about it.  What is it like when you’re in a really good theatrical event?  Your body and your brain are on a sort of stationary rollercoaster—you experience emotions, physical responses, things both so big you can’t ignore them (a jerk when surprised) and so small you’d never notice (an eye twitch, a smirk).

What’s hard is that our standard methods of trying to assess an audience’s experience generally fall short in terms of being able to accurately gauge immediate response.  This can happen for a variety of reasons, ranging from general politesse to a wish to avoid quantifying their experience.

The way Shumaker puts it is, “Post-performance surveys and lobby chatter, from a social psychology standpoint, just aren’t super useful.  People have all kinds of tricks of memory and biases that they reflect when they talk about something.  Getting to something physiological gives us a clearer picture of what people are actually experiencing.”

In a way, brain research is the hard-science twin of Theatre Bay Area’s ongoing research into the intrinsic impact of art.  Whereas with intrinsic impact we’re talking about abstract concepts like empathy, emotion, social connection and intelligence, the avenues being explored in neural research are actually attempting to show the development of pathways, of connections.  And each strengthens, or has the potential to strengthen the other.

There’s a potential, hypothetically, many, many years from now, that you could ask somebody about the impact of a piece of art on, for example, their empathetic response to others, and then you could go back and look at their brain activity as they experienced the art piece.  Essentially, hypothetically, you could see empathy forming in the brain like a line drawing slowly filling with color.  Maybe.

Imagine a world in which particular answers on a paper (or online) survey about an event were correlated with known brain activity—actual changes in the brain occurring—and we would be able to reasonably extrapolate our immediate and long-term effects based on a few simple questions.  Or imagine further that we are able to image a particular section of the brain and actually watch the synapses connect, pathways form—and then go back later and see how (and if) that pathways are still in use.  What if there was a way to visualize increased empathy?  To showcase deeper critical thinking?

Right now, unfortunately, the technology isn’t really there (and it’s unclear what it would actually be able to show, if it were).  There are two technologies, fMRI and EEG, and each is both useful and problematic in its own way.  fMRI is very spatially exact (you can tell exactly where something is happening in the brain), but is both hard to use remotely (it’s bulky) and not terribly exact in terms of time (it measures changes in blood flow and temperature, which doesn’t happen instantaneously).  EEG, on the other hand, is great on time (can measure exactly when something happens), and you can see things down to parts of seconds, and it can travel (it’s just a set of electrodes that can be connected wirelessly to a computer), but you can’t pinpoint where in the brain something is happening (it measures impulses on the scalp, so can only get general positioning).  What is needed, really, is the best of both.

Of course, theatre people often don’t really need fancy machines to tell you what’s going on in the brains of the audience.  They just have to walk into a darkened hall during a show, “feel the room,” and they’ll know.

This is the type of phenomenon that really interests Kristin Shumaker.

“In the theatre,” says Shumaker, “as much time as I spend looking at what’s happening on stage, I also look at what’s going on in the house.  And now, I’m actually in the position to watch the people who have worked on the show, too.  So not only am I looking at the audience’s reaction, I’m looking at the reactions of the people who created the show to that audience’s reaction.”

If at its core art is about transformation of the individual, is it really so much to ask that that transformation be manifest, not simply theoretical – that in essence we be able to show what communication through art is actually, physically doing to people? Have we wandered into the world of science fiction?  Are we asking too much, boxing ourselves in, attempting to demonstrate a physical manifestation of something that is closer to affecting the soul?

Watching is how we learn everything we do.  It’s how we learn to use a spoon, it’s how we learn to stand, walk, ride a bike.  We watch our parents to learn how to live with others.  We gain empathy from seeing empathy in action, we gain prejudice from seeing prejudice take place.

In a way, theatre is a bottled-up version of the most basic moral and intellectual lessons of life.  As someone said, “Life without the boring bits.”  Another way of saying that is that theatre, and all the arts, are like an incredibly concentrated perfume, pulling in all of the most valuable things we hold within ourselves as human and placing them on stage for an audience to see, and dropping the boring bits at home.

Theatre artists may look at a lot of this and say, “Well, yeah.”  That’s often the case.  We are experts at inherently knowing the effect that we have on people, the power of the work that we do.  It’s not a coincidence that Kristin Shumaker is so alone in attempting to tackle this question of measuring brain activity while watching performance.

“I feel like I’m in a tough place right now because I’m doing this essentially as an amateur,” she says.  “But the professionals, so to speak, haven’t really thought about culture yet.  It seems to them like it’s just too big a question to take on, you know?  Too many variables.  But I think they’ll get there.”

When we say we are reflecting back the human experience on the audience, we’re not just blowing smoke. While Shumaker has yet to be able to scale up her work, and is also still sorting out how to take the piles of data generated by just one person watching one show and turn them into something analyzable, a lot of this research suggests that the storytelling mode that is so central to live theatre is literally causing brains to hum in tune, to transform, to engage.  To crackle with common electricity, creating a flickering synchronicity across audience members that allows us all to experience something together and engage in communal discourse–even while sitting silent in a darkened room.