You may have noticed that several of the past few posts referenced recent articles about the impact of the information age on cognition. Basically, they argue that we are thinking in a more scattered way, a shallower way, one that is characterized by distractibility. Those of you who follow this blog know this is something of a fascination of mine. I’m insatiably curious about how our minds are being changed by technology and how the world around us will be changed by our new modes of interactivity. I also think that it bears repeating that I believe that live performance, like reading, can be an antidote to the distractibility of the age.
I have had this conversation more times than I would care to count: why does the live experience matter? Usually it starts because we’re talking about waning audiences for the arts – especially theater – and inevitably it comes back to an existential question on why the arts matter, what does live art do that other things don’t and how can we increase audiences?
Its not just about storytelling. Movies and TV do that better, to be honest. One of the huge problems with most theater is that it is little more than poorly staged television – and why should someone shell out good money to see bad TV?
Its not purely about the live experience either. Sports do a much better job of exciting masses of people with shared experience. There’s something really exciting about sports that just isn’t usually there in the arts.
So what is it? I believe that there is some sort of cognitive process that goes into observing live performance that must be exercised. It has to do both with the nature of attention and the practice of empathy.
Imagination is something that has to be nurtured and developed. Concomitant with individual imagination is collective imagination or the suspension of disbelief. When done well – and that’s a big caveat right there – only live performance can make us collectively hallucinate and agree on seeing what isn’t there, together. Live performance activates the imagination, the collective imagination, in a way that no other human group experience, outside of religion, can do. And there’s something powerful in that.
Not to sound like a hippie but there’s something to the idea of sacred space, of changing our experience of time and place. Suspending disbelief is a collective act of faith, an agreement we make with each other to choose to believe in the unseen and invisible.
When we watch a film we don’t have to suspend disbelief because the experience is mediated, it is objectively a fiction, the disbelief is built in. We never forget that we are in a movie, we don’t have to forget. Also, watching a movie requires rapid image processing, a key component of distractibility.
When we watch something on the stage it requires patience. It moves slower. Also, onstage are live human beings so patently not what they are pretending to be that it requires an act of will to believe in the fiction. We have to work at it a little bit (sometimes a lot). We are creating a subconscious connection between ourselves and our fellow audience members, psychically triangulating with the performers – and if at any time the triangulation is betrayed, the illusion falls apart. The magic withers.
If live performance doesn’t attempt to activate the imagination, if it doesn’t demand of the observer an altered state and if it doesn’t offer, in return, some form of magic and surprise, then we are falling short of the mark.
Makers of live performance have a responsibility to be cognizant of the time-based nature of the art form and what it means to willfully engage in the suspension of disbelief. The more incredible a given situation, the more unreal, the more “other-than” a stage scenario is, the more likely it is to succeed in activating the brain. It is not just about entertainment, it is about hypnotism and attention and, just as importantly, about wonder.
People often ask me why I go see so much work and I tell them I’m like a junkie – I need a fix. Many, many times I don’t get the drugs I need – the drug of illusion and wonder and empathy. Many times I’m left with a simulacrum of an experience that suggests the transportational and transformative potential of art without actualizing it. But every once in awhile you see something that really, truly blows your mind and opens your consciousness in new ways. And that is golden.
In this age of distractibility nothing is more important than preserving attention and deep thought. Without it we lose history, we lose perspective, we lose introspection and we lose ourselves. Its a balancing act, but just like people do yoga and go to the gym to tone their bodies, we must go to live performance (and read) to tone our minds, to hone our minds, to get an intellectual and spiritual workout.
That’s kind of esoteric but I think if we want to justify the importance of the arts in our society we have to make a case for it not on some random, “its good for you” basis, but on some sort of solid, scientific ground about the ways it effects imagination and cognition, that it is good for individuals and society.
If anyone knows of any scientific studies about attention, cognition and live performance, I’d love to read them.
Thoughts? Please leave comments!