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  • Neuroscience at the Playhouse
  • Greg Hill

Contemporary neuroscience is much more than a promising field of research. Like psychoanalysis before it, neuroscience has become part of our culture. We say we’re “hardwired” to think in certain ways, we distinguish between “left-brain” and “right-brain” people, and we attach enormous credibility to explanations couched in terms of neural networks and the like. The discoveries of neuroscience have been bundled up by popularizers and hurled with devastating impact at folk psychology and the prosaic idea that people act for reasons and with a semblance of free will. In place of these platitudes, neuroscientists insist that our minds are just complex mechanisms that process information and produce behaviors that enhance our survival prospects. This conception of thought and action was introduced into the philosophy of mind some time ago (“minds are what brains do”) and is now making inroads into law and economics, challenging widely held views about free will and responsibility.

What kind of light does the neuroscientific beacon cast upon the theater and its place in human experience? Mick Gordon offers up the first answer with the intriguing claim that the mind and the theater can be usefully construed as mirror images of each other. And the offering is particularly enticing because Gordon is not only a student and admirer of neuroscience but also an accomplished playwright who has written a series of plays exploring big ideas, including On Death, On Love, On Ego, On Religion: Grace, On Emotion, On Evolution: The Ride of Your Life, and [End Page 249] On Identity: Pressure Drop. In Theatre and the Mind, he sets out in a mere seventy-one pages a lucid and provocative view of both the theater and the mind, a view informed by the author’s interest in neuroscience as well as his experience as a playwright and theater director.1 It’s a short but lively book, and while I don’t find the theory convincing, I do recommend this austere little treatise to anyone interested in a neuroscientific view of the theater.


The book opens with the audience in a darkened playhouse. The lights come on: “Information.” The faces of the characters: “Information.” The way they walk: “Information.” Although Gordon is referring to the kind of “information” that neuroscientists regard as “inputs” to the brain, he nevertheless writes that “all theater happens in the mind” (p. 7, emphasis added). And while the author goes on to say that “minds are what brains do,” this functionalist conception of the mind, and the neuroscientific theory associated with it, is the source of many ill-conceived arguments in the book. But before I get to these shortcomings, it will be useful to have before us Gordon’s general theory of mind and theater.

According to contemporary neuroscience, which owes a heavy debt to Charles Darwin, our brains have evolved as a means of orchestrating our interaction with the social and physical environment, designed by nature, in part, to defend us against a variety of dangers. When we’re threatened, our reflexes take over, and we act without thinking. But when we’re not in harm’s way, “the brain has time for consciousness,” and “these are the moments when we experience ourselves as our selves” (p. 9). For Gordon, this freedom to think is the unique gift of theater. Because we know the play being performed on stage is an illusion and therefore not a threat to our existence, “our minds allow us the thinking space to experience and consider the alternative stories and behaviours in front of us.” In the safety of the playhouse, “our minds are released from their survival instinct . . . [they] can be radicals” (p. 14).

It may be readily agreed that theatergoers (not minds or brains) can find themselves in a frame of mind that’s open and receptive to the forthcoming performance. But the unique character of this experience doesn’t arise from the security the playhouse affords against imminent danger. Reading a book in one’s living room surely exposes our reptilian brain to less frightening inputs than sitting in a dark theater with a bunch of strangers. More important, while...


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pp. 249-262
Launched on MUSE
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