Theatre and Neuroscience (part 2)

Updated: May 21

Neuroesthetic techniques for the treatment of Parkinson's disease


‹‹ Science and art can only help each other if they complement each other.›› [1]

Pavel Vasilevič Simonov [2], a Russian scientist who lived in the mid-twentieth century, proved that Stanislavsky's technical innovation had anticipated what modern science had just begun to discover. He has demonstrated that the "method of physical actions" [ 3] is of incredible interest to neurophysiologists as it reflects the objective laws of the human brain: the neuroscientist compared the constituent elements of the Stanislavskij's method and translated them into the specialist language of the time, coming to say that emotions are an electrochemical exchange among nerve cells, that revival is comparable to hypnosis and that theatre can be a support to psychotherapy. Fifty years after Simonov's studies, we know that mirror neurons coordinate the observed action with the observer's motor knowledge: although different areas and cortical circuits are involved, our perception of the movements and reactions of others is connected to a mechanic reflex that allows us to recognize simultaneously what we see, hear or imagine doing, as the same neural discharges responsible for our acts or emotions are activated. The human mirror system recognizes the action whose purpose is concrete, transitive or intransitive, such as communicative facial expressions (a mechanism necessary, for example, in understanding pantomimes, but not in the observation of actions conducted by artificial subjects): the mirror system, therefore, is activated only in the face of a real action moved by a real intention. Not only that, the motor program operates entirely in its chain of references from the first moment:

‹‹ the observer, when they attend the execution of one motor act of another, anticipates the possible subsequent acts to which that act is linked ›› [4].

Discharges in premotor areas are more modulated if the observed action has been embodied: as evidenced by the experiment [5] with the dancers reported in the previous article, the role of the observer's motor repertoire is very relevant, as it constitutes a shared space of action capable of creating neuronal calls, which in turn are responsible for the ability to imitate the observed action. The same sharing allows us to understand at the viscero-motor level the mood of what is other than itself and is the basis of empathy.


‹‹ the phenomenon is not detached from the observer but rather is intertwined and implicated in the individuality of the latter ›› [6],

we will try to build a dialogue between theatrical art and neurophysiology in order to better understand what the three aspects mentioned above are and how they work: intention, imitation and empathy.

2.1 The intention 2.1.1 A pre-reflective understanding

As suggested above, the mirror system may be responsible for our understanding of others' intentions. A study [7] conducted by Marco Iacoboni has shown that premotor areas with mirror properties are also involved in understanding the intention that promoted an action: thanks to the functional mechanism of the embodied simulation, the human brain is able to attribute intentions and consequences for the actions of others, that is, to learn them in a pre-reflective way, coding not only the purpose of a motor act, but also the temporal aspect of the individual movements that compose it [8]; in addition, the premotor mirror areas are activated independently of having to explicitly determine the intention of the observed actions. This means that the attribution of intentions takes place automatically and by means of the obligatory activation of the embodied simulation: all interactions therefore have an ontologically intentional value. By observing an act, our brain creates an anticipatory and predictive model on the motor level of action, since this act in power is already within us: understanding the intentions of others rests, in fact, on the action strategies of our motor dictionary, in which an action compatible with the situation may result, causing physiological changes in us.

2.1.2. A shared space of action

The theatrical audience, neurologically resonating with the motion of the actor, immediately participates in the process of action: considering the active role of the action in attributing meaning to the perceptive world, the actor plays with the spectator by lighting an intention that it could suddenly be inhibited and subsequently transformed, arousing interest and amazement in the spectator. Therefore, even a prop exists and acquires meaning when it enters into an intentional relationship with a potential agent. The actor's job is to activate intentions and change the expected development span, inhibiting it, making it evolve and causing confusion: in the third scene of the second act of Alfieri's Virginia, Icilio, played by Gustavo Modena, as a sign of challenge plants a dagger in marble (or rather, in wooden scenography), with consequent emotion of the public, unaware of the realistic incongruence, but intentionally and emotionally involved [9]. Theatrical pleasure is a consequence of the tensions and relaxations due to the relationship between the spectator's ordinary actions vocabulary and the actor's extraordinary vocabulary, which, by means of neuronal discharges, conducts directional impulses with sudden turns and tense contractions. Since the spectator goes to the theatre for the sake of incorporation, the actor needs a huge amount of energy to model the path of mirroring and an ad hoc training to provoke the appropriate changes in his motor program and to modify the usual one of the spectator, who can, however, indiscriminately inhibit and not simulate what ignites a motor resonance in him. The performer must create a shared space of action with the spectator, must be connected with the public, so that ‹‹ the event [can] take many directions ›› [10]: the intention is, therefore, a necessary element, without the which the viewer would not be involved on a pre-reflective level. In the production of an action, its purpose is fundamental. To rebuild and maintain a real action, it is necessary to look for its concrete purpose:

‹‹ the error of most actors is to not worry about the purpose and development of the action [...], they aim straight for the conclusion and end up playing that only, emphatically, inevitably falling into the profession ›› [11] .

Even in neuroscientific terms, the concreteness of the action is obtained only when the motion has an initial real purpose: however, for Stanislavskij, according to an apparent paradox, the purpose of the action can also be fake, that is, the goal can be imaginary; what is essential is that the inner action never stops, otherwise it would be outwardly empty. Therefore, imagination is required to activate a real action. Luciano Mariti [12] claims that intentionality is the first and foundational level of action: intention, in fact, is very present in the philosophy and practice of the masters of twentieth century theatre, think, for example, of Barba's sats [ 13], a discharge of energy in a sequence of actions that modifies the course and intensity of the act or interrupts it suddenly, a moment in transition that leads to a muscular modification, the impulse that is held back to accumulate energy when the actor is ready to act, the moment in which the tension of the motor system is created in the histrion which goes into short circuit with the cerebral tendency to complete the action with the most plausible variant. It is the spectator who attributes a perspective to the action in power. The corporeity of the actor has capabilities out of the ordinary and may surprise precisely in those transitional moments that the spectator's embodied simulation is not accustomed to experimenting: remember a famous theatrical exercise for self-control and to unlock the automatisms between the body, emotion and thought, Gurdjieff's stop [14], in which the body stops between one pose and another, in an uncomfortable and not ordinary position, and then resumes motion with a point of attack moved by a natural and powerful feeling, as if the artist was possessed by the expression of intent. Lessing teaches that the pregnant moment is the most magical artistic moment, the interpretative key of the creative imagination, and that this moment is the initial one and not the achmé of the action: speaking of the famous statue, he tells us that

  ‹‹ when Laocoon sighs, the imagination can hear him shout; but when it cries, it cannot go one degree higher or one degree lower [...] or hears it moan, or sees it dead ›› [15].

Similarly, Steiner [16] tells of the silent scream of the actress Elene Weigel, who, in Brecht's Mother Courage and her children in 1949, opened her mouth with the same look of the Guernica's horse and the audience heard her shout . For this reason Stanislavsky asserted that to make a real action it is necessary to segment it into auxiliary actions: the more intentional turns are contained in a motion the more the actor's body is in the pre-reflective present, in the suspension of life, in a tableau that becomes vivant by intention.

‹‹ What is the impulse? In-pulso, push from the inside. The impulses precede physical actions, always. It is as if the physical action, still invisible from the outside, had already been born in the body. By preparing a part you can work out the physical actions yourself. [...] Without the others noticing, you can train on physical actions, make compositions of physical actions while remaining at the level of impulses. It means that physical actions do not appear yet but are in the body, because they are impulsive.›› [17]

2.2 Imitation and empathy 2.2.1 The implications of the mirror system

The discovery of mirror neurons not only teaches us about the deeper functioning of our motor system, but also reveals a new world of possibilities, also involving one of the characteristics that make us unique among the species: spoken language. It has been hypothesized that the evolution of our communicative abilities - by means of mechanisms that cannot be explained in this context - occurred not so much by listening to the senseless sounds that our ancestors had to emit, but thanks to the imitation of their gestures: in this case, their mirror system would have played a crucial role in making the motions of others codifiable, thus creating a form of immediate communication that has proven to be evolutionarily very effective. There are several nuances of the concept of imitation: in fact, it can be the replica of an already known motor act, which belongs to the vocabulary of acts of the imitator; or it can be understood as learning a new motor pattern, never observed before. The German psychologist Wolfgang Prinz [18] has noticed that man is very quick to replicate motor acts equal or similar to those observed, the more rapid, indeed, the greater the degree of similarity between the two acts, and he hypothesized the the existence of a code, common to both the visual and motor brain, capable of instantly translating the visual model into a more or less known motor act. As we've learned, the Parma team has shown that this code is enucleated in mirror neurons, which transform an observed action into a corresponding motor act. If the imitation of known gestures is relatively simple, the process becomes complicated when the motor sequence is completely unknown to us, as it is necessary to learn it: in this case, it must be decomposed into elementary micro-movements attributable to gestures already present in the motor dictionary of the the observer / imitator, to then be reassembled into a new sequence as close as possible to the original; mirror neurons are activated in all phases, both during observation and during the pause during which our brain retraces and re-elaborates what has been observed; at this instant the frontal lobe also lights up, which owes the property to recompose the segmented action into a new sequence. Therefore, mirror neurons are a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement for our imitative abilities. It has been said previously that our social structure largely depends on the embodied simulation, thanks to which we know how to attribute mental states and intentions to us, but rarely an action takes place in a neutral context - such as that of one of the experiments reported so far - and devoid of emotional connotation: to create a network of relationships with solid foundations we must be able to read and understand not only the actions and the underlying intentions, but also the emotions of others. This is a process that can be found empirically in everyday life: even if our mood is completely different, we are perfectly capable of knowing what the others feel, as if we also felt their same emotion. This emotional fusion [19] is empathy. Today, neuroscience is investigating its brain processes, drawing inspiration from the previous ideas of social psychology and the various studies conducted with the aim of showing that imitation can promote the recognition of an emotion. Marco Iacoboni suggested that there is a neuronal link between the mirror system and the limbic system and that this connection is made up of the insula, the only brain region that has anatomical connections with both areas: to study how this actually happens, he conducted some neuroimaging experiments [20] in which subjects had to observe and imitate faces expressing primary emotions. The use of fMRI has allowed to highlight a simultaneous activation of mirror neurons, limbic system and insula during observation and an increase in activity while imitating emotions. According to this ‹‹ hypothesis of empathy of mirror neurons ›› [21], they discharge when we see others expressing emotions, as if we were ourselves to implement those same facial expressions and, by means of this activation, send signals to the centers of the limbic system, provoking in us the same emotions as those in front of us. These results are consistent with the theories [22] proposed by the Portuguese neurologist Antonio Damasio, who, interested in the study of cognitive processes, in particular of consciousness, criticizes the Cartesian approach of the dualism of substance in favor of the unity between mind and body: he claims that our inner world is mirrored in the brain in a neurological substrate, corresponding to a physical state, first cerebral and then bodily. This also applies to emotions and feelings, terms that are mistakenly used as synonyms, since emotions, understood as external manifestations, in front of a stimulus precede the feelings, which are the inner and mental component of the same stimulus: the feeling consists in a mental representation, an idea of ​​a particular state of the body, a brain map of our physicality when we are perturbed by an emotion; in other words, feeling a feeling means perceiving that our body is in a given disposition, which requires the existence of sensory maps containing specific neural configurations and to which mental images can be recreated. This is obviously our embodied simulation.

‹‹ It is evident that the brain can internally simulate some emotional body states [...]. Imagine someone telling you about a horrible accident in which a person was seriously injured: it may be that for a moment you feel a stab of pain that reflects, in your mind, the pain of the individual in question [...]. The mechanism that is supposed to produce this sort of feeling [...] is the bodily circuit of the "as if". It implies, at the brain level, an internal simulation which consists in the rapid modification of the maps of the current state of the body: this happens when certain brain regions, for example the prefontal or premotor cortices, report directly to the somatosensitive regions of the brain. The existence and localization of similar types of neurons has recently been established, known as "mirror neurons".››[23]

2.2.2 Theatre: an ante litteram neuroesthetic   Returning to deal more closely with philosophy, the link between mirror system and art appears immediate, as the concept of empathy is one of the cornerstones of traditional aesthetics: the mirror system provides, in fact, a neurobiological explanation of the phenomenon for which we enter in consonance with a work of art. Certainly the dialogue between theatre and neuroscience is a recent fact: in the Seventies Richard Schechner and Victor Turner, respectively a director and an anthropologist, activated their Performance Studies, characterized by a plurality of approaches, from the history of philosophy to ethology, with the objective of deepening the performative aspects of social, cultural and artistic behavior; in 1979 Eugenio Barba, founder of Odin Teatret, starting the International School of Theatre Anthropology, a multicultural network of performers with the common purpose of studying the principles of theatrical anthropology, which deals with researching the pre-expressive principles of human behavior in an organized performance situation; in 1995 John Schranz coordinated in Malta the xHCA project, Questioning Human Creativity as Acting, which consists of researching the actor's work through the cognitive sciences to learn about the neuronal substrates of human creativity; finally, since 2009 the Department of Arts and Sciences of the University of Rome La Sapienza organizes annual multidisciplinary conferences entitled Dialogues between theatre and neuroscience, whose interventions have already been partially collected in two volumes [24] and to which I am inspired in the drafting of this paper. The performative act takes concrete form, as mentioned, in the human capacity to establish relationships with itself, with the other actors and with the spectator: Peter Brook stated in an interview [25] that with the discovery of mirror neurons, neurosciences understood what the theatre has always taught, or that the actor's work would be in vain if they couldn't share, beyond any linguistic or cultural barrier, their own sounds and movements with the spectator, making them participate in an event that they contribute to create.

Western theatre as we know it today was bor in classical Greece: speaking of it, in his Poetics Aristotle writes that ‹‹who imitates, imitates people in action›› [26], that ‹‹epic, tragic poetry, comedy [ ...] are, in general, all imitations›› [27] and that the ‹‹tragedy is the imitation of a serious and accomplished action [...] which through pity and fear produces the purification of these feelings›› [28]. He also adds that ‹‹imitating is congenital from the childhood of man, who [...] through imitation obtains his first acquaintances; everyone derives pleasure from imitations [...]; even what gives us pain to see in reality we enjoy contemplating perfect reproduction [...]. The cause of this is that learning is a great pleasure›› [29].

The essence of theatre therefore lies in the congenital nature of man's imitation: in fact, imitating is a mechanism inherent in our DNA. It is acting, the actor's moving body, the pivot around which the drama revolves and it is through their observation that catharsis can occur, liberation from the feelings of fear and pity, that is, identification with the other. Aristotle's words echo the lessons of the masters of Twentieth-century Russian and Polish theatre: Stanislavsky, Mejerchol'd, Grotowski break with tradition, displacing the text in favor of the body. A human motion on the scene, observed by a spectator, is enough and it is already theatre, as theatre is what happens between the spectator and the actor: theatre cannot exist without a direct, palpable relationship, a communion of life, a mimetic identification. The essence of the theatre is humanity itself. The Stanislavskij's method provides that emotions are really experienced by the actor, not just played, since to create contact with the audience it is necessary to have an authentic feeling to transmit. To achieve emotional truthfulness, the actor must resort to the "magic if" and this simulation triggers a real emotional reaction, which the spectator will also perceive as such. It is not from rational reflection, but from the body that emotions must start: empathy is kinaesthesia, physical induction of emotions. Again, embodied simulation.

In his interview, Peter Brook, who deals with neuroscience in his own shows, was right: theatre is ante litteram neuresthetics.

[1] K. S. Stanislavskij, Il lavoro dell’attore su se stesso, (1938), Laterza, Bari, 2008, p. 347.

[2] P.V. Simonov, “Metod K. S. Stanislavskogo i fisiologija emocij”, Mosca (1962), framment in L. A. Santoro, In corso d’opera, Adriatica Editrice Salentina, Lecce, 2003, vol 3.

[3] K. S. Stanislavskij, Il lavoro dell’attore su se stesso, (1938), Laterza, Bari, 2004, p. XVIII.

[4] G. Rizzolatti, C. Sinigaglia, So quel che fai, Cortina Raffaello, Milano, 2006, p. 125; M. A. Umiltà, E. Kohler, V. Gallese, L. Fogassi, L. Fadiga, C. Keyser, G. Rizzolatti, I know what you are doing: a neurophysiologycal study, in “Neurons”, n. 32 (2001), pp. 91-101.

[5] B. Calvo-Merino, D. E. Glaser, J. Grezes, R. E. Passingham, P. Haggard, Action observation and acquired motor skills: an fMRI study with expert dancers, in “Cerebral Cortex”, n. 15, 8 (2005), pp. 1243-1249.

[6] J. W. Goethe, Massime e riflessioni, trad. di Bignami M., Theoria, Roma, 1990, n.1224.

[7]M. Iacoboni, I. Molnar-Szakacs, V. Gallese, G. Buccino, J. C. Mazziotta, G. Rizzolatti, Grasping the Intentions of Others with One’s Own Mirror Neuron System, in “PLOS Biology”, n. 3 (2005), pp. 3-79.

[8] L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, G. Pavesi, G. Rizzolatti, Motor facilitation during action observation: a magnetic stimulation study, in “Journal of Neurophysiology”, n. 73 (1995), pp. 2608-2611; F. Maeda, G. Kleiner-Fisman, A. Pascual-Leone, Motor facilitation while observing hand action: specificity of the effect and role of observer’s orientation, in “Journal of Neurophysiology”, n. 87 (2002), pp. 1329-1335.

[9] F. Traviani, “La poesia dell’attore”, in C. Meldolesi, F. Traviani, Teatro e spettacolo nel primo Ottocento, Laterza, Bari, 1991, pp. 161-167.

[10] P. Brook, La porta aperta, Einaudi, Torino, 2005, p. 61.

[11]K. S. Stanislavskij, Il lavoro dell’attore su se stesso (1938), Laterza, Bari,2008, p. 127.

[12] L. Mariti, “Transiti tra Teatro e Scienza: dalla mimesis tou biou al bios della mimesis”, in G. Sofia, Dialoghi tra teatro e neuroscienze, Alegre, Roma, 2009, p. 73.

[13]The sats is ‹‹ The moment in which the action is thought-acted by the whole organism which reacts with tension even in immobility. It is the point where you are determined to do. There is a musical, nervous, mental commitment, already directed towards a goal. It is the straining or gathering from which the action flows ››. E. Barba, La canoa di carta, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1993, p. 87.

[14] P. D. Ouspensky, Frammenti di un insegnamento sconosciuto. La testimonianza di otto anni di lavoro come discepolo di G. i. Gurdjieff (1950), Astrolabio-Ubaldini, Roma, 1976.

[15] G. E. Lessing, Laokoon (1766), a cura di E. Sola, Sansoni, Firenze, 1954, p. 19.

[16] E. Barba, N. Savarese, L’arte segreta dell’attore, Argo, Lecce,1996, p. 264.

[17] J. Grotowski, “Conferenza a Liège”, in Th. Richards, Al lavoro con Grotowski sulle azioni fisiche, Ubulibri, Milano, 1993, p. 105.

[18] Researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Munich, director of the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences of Leipzig. A. Meltzoff, W. Prinz, The Imitative Mind: development, evolution and brain bases, in “Cambridge University Press”, Cambridge (2002).

[19] N. Abbagnano, “Empatia”, in Dizionario di Filosofia, UTET, Torino, 1971, p. 361.

[20] J. T. Kaplan, M. Iacoboni, Getting a grip on other minds: mirror neurons, intention understanding and cognitive empathy, in “Società Neuroscientifica” (2006).

[21] Ivi, p. 106.

[22] A. Damasio, Feelings of emotion and the self, in “Annals of the New York Academy of Science”, vol. 1001 (2003).

[23] Ivi, pp. 143-144.

[24] G. Sofia, Dialoghi tra teatro e neuroscienze, Edizioni Alegre, Roma, 2009; C. Faletti, G. Sofia, Nuovi dialoghi tra teatro e neuroscienze, Editoria&Spettacolo, Spoleto, 2011.

[25] G. Rizzolatti, C. Sinigaglia, So quel che fai, Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milano, 2006, p. 1.

[26] Aristotle, Poetics, 1448a, 1.

[27] Ivi, 1447a, 13-116.

[28] Ivi, 1449b, 23-29.

[29] Ivi, 1448b, 6-15.

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