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Transferring Belief: The Stage Presence of the Spiritual Meme

From: Theatre Symposium
Volume 21, 2013
pp. 26-35 | 10.1353/tsy.2013.0001

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As performance practitioners, we hear a lot about the so-called power of theatre. Yet not all live performances are powerful. So when they are, what makes them so? This essay uses the neuroscience of spectating and imitation to make the argument that live performance has the ability to transfer certain units of cultural information—including those with spiritual content—from performer to spectator. These transferable units, called memes, can be as specific as a simple melody or as sophisticated and individualized as a spiritual belief system. I am interested in how certain units of spiritual ideology can be spread from character to spectator in the theatre. It is important for us as artists to consider the biological impact of the transmission of ideas from the stage space to the audience.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the controversial term meme, an abbreviation of the Greek root mimema, "to imitate." Dawkins uses the term to define units of culture includi ng "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches." Just as genes are passed on from parents to children, memes, Dawkins argues, can be passed on from brain to brain via cultural transmission. This transmission takes place via the subconscious imitation of the behavior of others and through formal and informal education. Susan Blackmore similarly argues that memes, like genes, evolve by "memetic selection." She also suggests that religious memes eventually have an impact on which genes are successful.

In Breaking the Spell, cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that we should "set aside our traditional reluctance to investigate religious phenomena scientifically, so that we can come to understand how and why religions inspire such devotion." He argues that religion is such an influential natural phenomenon that it must be understood in order to make informed political decisions. I would argue that as performance practitioners, we benefit from understanding the science of spiritual belief systems in order to make informed aesthetic decisions.

In the past decade, theatre scholarship has crossed disciplinary lines with the cognitive sciences to better understand how spectators become engaged with the subject matter represented on the stage. In Engaging Audiences, Bruce McConachie examines how various cultural concepts, empathy, and emotion are working in the minds of spectators during a theatrical performance. He argues that the cognitive sciences can tell us, as theatre practitioners, how to better understand and stimulate the spectator's brain. He writes: "As actors and spectators, we want to be pushed to emotional extremes," and so "audiences must engage with actors . . . and the artists . . . must engage with the spectators." Using recent neurological research concerning imitation, McConachie argues that while witnessing a staged event, the brain itself imitates the event, thereby effectively experiencing it. In other words, what the senses perceive, the brain translates into actual experience on the neuronal level. Once the spectator's brain has simulated the experience of the event onstage, a unit of cultural information—a meme—has been transferred.

Building on McConachie's argument, I suggest that the brain, through a series of cognit ive and psychosomatic processes, has the capacity to share in the representation of spiritual experiences onstage. Theatrical performances can act as neurological rehearsals for real-l ife scenarios, forming new neural pathways that create or reinforce belief in specific spiritual ideologies. Performative representations of spiritual experiences can, like the genetic code found in our DNA, carry and transmit elements of spiritual culture.

In Mystical Mind, Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg explore a possible evolutionary development of the brain that includes spiritual experience. They define the "cognitive imperative" as people's inherent need to "organize their world cognitively" and to "use their rational mind/brain to wonder about God and the mysteries of religion." The process of witnessing the representation of a spiritual experience onstage encourages the development of new neural pathways that make room for a cognitive organization of the unseen world.

The notion that the human brain—indeed, the mind itself—and the human body are interconnected is substant iated by consistent discoveries by neuroscientists. Humans undergo most motor development after birth. Unlike ungulates and other large mammals that can walk moments after birth, humans are...


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