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Antonia Hamilton: We’re going to wire up actors’ brains and find out what’s going on

Great performances capture us emotionally, transporting us to a world of the imagination. As a neuroscientist, I want to know how this works. Most neuroscientists study one thing at a time – memory or language or visual perception – but for theatre we need all of these, plus that magic of the interaction between the actors and between actors and audience.

So how can we possibly create a neuroscience of theatre? Five years ago I started working with Flute Theatre, led by Kelly Hunter, which puts on performances of Shakespeare for young people with autism. Children and actors co-create the elemental interactions of the play – acts of looking or fighting; loving or avoiding.

This gives the autistic children new ways to engage with other people and offers benefits for social skills. But as a neuroscientist, I wanted to know what happens when children and adults engage in these unique theatre games and how does this change their brains?

A recent neuroimaging study of actors asked a group of drama students to go in an MRI scanner and answer questions such as: “Would you tell your parents if you fell in love?” either from their own point of view or from the point of view of Romeo or Juliet. They found much less brain activity in the frontal cortex when the actors were taking on the lovers’ roles and concluded that acting can change patterns of brain activity.

However, lying still in the dark confines of an MRI scanner does not have much in common with performance on stage in front of an audience. If we really want to understand the brain of an actor, we need to see it in action.

New wearable brain-imaging technologies now give us the chance to examine this kind of question. This technology, called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), works by shining infrared light into the brain to measure how the blood flows in the cortex.

So far, we have scanned actors in rehearsal, and we can see that performing the same scene always gives the same brain pattern. We can test if taking on a role changes actors’ sense of self, by looking for changing patterns of activity in the frontal cortex. Our data so far has been collected from rehearsals, but for the first time ever, this month we will be performing our neuroimaging research live on stage.

As Flute Theatre dives into the dreamworld of a midsummer night, the neuroscience team will capture the responses of the audience and the actors in a way that has never been attempted before.

We hope to find out how patterns of brain activity in a live performance are different to doing the same actions in rehearsals, and to test if taking on a role changes the actor’s sense of self. Moving between science and theatre, this performance deconstructs The Dream in order to forge a new understanding of the neuroscience of theatre.

Antonia Hamilton is UCL’s professor of social neuroscience. Deconstructing the Dream is at Bloomsbury Theatre, London, May 15-16, part of UCL’s Performance Lab season

The Other Place review at Park Theatre, London – ‘a compelling play about dementia’ [1]