How Theatre Affects the Brain

For whatever reason, I’ve spent countless thousands of hours trying to figure out why I love theatre so much. There are plenty of possible reasons that come to mind: past life baggage, addiction to applause, a fascination that started when I saw Annie as a third grader. But for some reason, those events were never enough for me to be satisfied with the answer. Theatre resonates with me in a stronger way than any other art form. I know this is true because even when I’m exhausted, sick, or hungover, I still find the motivation to show up in my theatre seat. When I know that the show is going to be terrible, because of reviews or word of mouth, if there’s something inside me that has  the slightest interest in the the show, I’ll buy a ticket and stay from curtain rise to curtain call.

Even though entertainment today is cheap and plentiful, millions of people (myself included) still spend top dollar to see live theatre–evidence that something bigger is going on here. This observation led me to investigate how theatre affects the brain. I wanted to get a clearer picture of why I’m willing to travel hundreds of miles to see Emily Skinner in Follies but rarely take time to go up the street to see a new movie release at the mall. Thanks to science, and the modern ability to study the human brain, there are a few solid answers as to what goes on in your brain as you sit in an audience full of eager theatregoers and watch the acting parade pass by.

Our Social Brains Connect During a Live Show
Our Social Brains – Photo by William White on Unsplash

We Set Our Intent on Having an Emotional Experience

When theatre devotees arrive at box office, we’ve already opened ourselves up to having an emotional experience. This is different than a complacent powering up of the TV to watch whatever Anna Paquin is doing this month. We go to the theatre intent on getting our feelings revved up, and our brains respond accordingly.

In a recent comparison study at two art museums, it was discovered that patrons of modern art visit institutions in search of sensation, as opposed to viewers of ancient art who visit out of a sense of duty.

“More [National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art] visitors expressed the desire to see artworks in the original and the pleasure that they felt during the visit, compared to Braschi visitors whose most frequently chosen option concerned the interest for the artist/s and the desire of cultural enrichment. People who go to modern art museums are willing to go in search of sensation more than people who go to ancient art museums.” – from The New Republic

This applies to theatre attendance because, well, you can’t get more contemporary than a live performance. You are witnessing art that is literally being created on the spot. We show up, anticipating a transformative experience. As opposed to, say, a classic film festival, where the goals might be to see the work of a director who is supposed to be a big deal, or listen to a talkback that puts a dated story back into context. These latter two goals are sometimes true of a theatregoer, too, but the live, in-the-moment aspect cannot be removed.

We Forget Our Emotional Baggage

Far from a scientific revelation, it’s well known that art helps us forget our own current problems. In tough economic times, the entertainment industry tends to flourish. It’s an escape from the stresses of the world around us. Theatre is unique because there’s a tradition of focus and reverence associated with sitting in the auditorium. Responsible patrons get to their seats before the show begins, and commit to focusing throughout, the only break being intermission. This provides a better escape than less reverent locations, like living room sofas or sports arenas.

“While enjoying an artwork, we lose ourselves in a tiny self created world, where there is just us and the work before us.” – from Silent Eloquence

Why Our Brains Respond to Theatre
Our Brains and Theatre – Photo by Davide Ragusa on Unsplash

The Social Part of the Brain Engages

Time for more science! As the Washington Post reports, when we watch any type of performance as part of a large crown, the social areas of our brain become engaged with the spectacle.

“We crave social connection. And the cues we get from those around us help our brains make sense of our surroundings. This starts from the moment we walk into a crowd.”

This finding also supports that “we just need an audience” feeling you get toward the end of the theatrical rehearsal process. The actors are telling the story, the set and costumes fall into place, but in those last few days before the first performance, something is missing. It’s that social connection that the performers share with the audience, engaging all our brains to turn the entire production into a living piece of art.

Our Brainwaves Sync Up with the Rest of the Audience

A study looked at three different types of audiences who all watched the same show. One large group watched a song being performed live, in person, in a concert setting. The second group consisted of the same large number of people, and watched the same original song being performed via video recording. The third group was much smaller than the other two, but also watched the video recording of the song. Scientists monitored the brainwaves of each group. The results showed that the large group who the performance live were actually linked via their brainwaves during the show.

“When people watch live music together, their brains waves synchronize, and this brain bonding is linked with having a better time.”

In Paulo Coelho’s book, The Alchemist, Fatima tells the boy that you don’t need a reason to love something, and I think that’s true. But isn’t it nice to know that, in additional to the rousing rendition of “It’s a Hard Knock Life” you experienced as a child, science has your back when it comes to theatre obsession?


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