Empathy in performance: reflecting on mirror neurons.

I believe it was Dr Who that said “I look at a star and it is a just a big ball of burning gas, and I know how it began and I know how it ends and I was probably there both times.  Now after a while everything is just stuff. That’s the problem, you make all of space and time your backyard and what do you have? A back yard.  But you, you can see it. And when you see it, I see it.”

Although this particular scene from the fifth modern series never made the cut (my housemate made me watch the outtakes… seriously, he MADE me) the point addressed here is a very human one, ironically coming from an alien.  The reason this 900-year-old Time Lord needs a companion as he travels the universe is because seeing  their reaction is the only way he can experience the emotion of the journey.

Empathy, the ability to share others’ emotions, is an everyday occurrence for us.  This can be in the form of cringing as we see an athlete get injured, contagious yawning or laughing a bit harder at David Letterman’s jokes only because the studio audience is told to embellish their chuckles.  These cool little occurrences are proudly brought to you by mirror neurons: the brain cells that fire when you perform an action or simply observe it.

The understanding of mirror neurons in the psychology world is still maturing, but there are some good findings being made.  The best person to hear them from, I would say, is this guy:

Although, as I’ll restate, our understanding of empathy is still very much limited, it seems to me that mirror neurons may play a crucial role in a performer’s career.  Comedians can tell the same joke thousands of times with the same enthusiasm.  Magicians can perform the same tricks for decades without growing jaded by them.  My theory is that when these performers see or hear their audience’s reactions they themselves experience that same quality of emotion, despite not being directly affected by the jokes or tricks per se.

There may also be another implication for mirror neurons in the development of stage performance.  Let’s take a stand-up comedy routine for example.  When developing a routine I perform the material at least three times to different audiences.  One way to go about selecting the best jokes after these shows could be to record the performance, play it on the computer later and measure the volume and length of the laughs after each joke.  This seems to make sense.  From the results of this I can keep the jokes that received the longest and loudest laughs and omit the others.  This quantitative approach has been available to comedians for decades due to our technological capabilities.  However, I would never take this approach and I don’t think many others would either.  Why? Because there a many more variables involved in determining an effective joke than those capable of being captured by a voice recorder.

Our mirror neurons are far more intricate technology than anything that has been invented with batteries.  During the performance my keen ol’ neurons are firing away when I get, not just laughs but, the right laughs.  If I can see an audience member’s face, than I can experience the emotion I am creating.  There are many subtle variables in the moments of live comedy that cannot be reduced to a couple of measures, such as volume and length of the reactions.  On stage I can feel what the audience experiences in great depth, that of which we may not know consciously know the full extent of.  This is, of course, assuming that my empathetic faculties are in working order (which they clearly are, as evidenced by the tears that streamed down my face during Toy Story 3).

The emotions I share with the audience throughout the routine, thanks to mirror neurons, will help me tell the difference between a good quality joke and a joke that simply gets loud laughs.

I wish I could unpack these ideas further but I’m worried about making too many blatant guesses about mirror neurons.  Thus far these are my person thoughts on how they may apply to my field, but I’ll have to wait for stronger research on the matter before having any real confidence in them.

It is a fascinating topic to be emerging, so I will continue to keep an ear out for new discoveries.  Please let me know if you come across any.

For now I just like thinking that when on stage, I can see my reflection in your mirror neurons.

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One thought on “Empathy in performance: reflecting on mirror neurons.

  1. Pingback: Show And Feel « Phil Presents

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