I enjoyed this video from TEDx Guildford – Russell Dean exploring many of the ideas that have prompted this project. I worked with Russell on his show Dissonance last year. It was a Wellcome Trust funded production in which Russell collaborated with a neuroscientist to make a theatre piece about cognitive dissonance. Russell, a prodigious theatrical polymath, wrote and directed the show, made the puppet (he’s also a brilliant mask maker) and designed the set.
I’m not sure I agree with all of Russell’s conclusions – but this is a hugely engaging 17 minutes on how these phenomena might engage our perceptual systems.
Susan and the banana – three models
The Action Observation Network – ‘mirror neurons’ – is really interesting for theatre people. Here we have been, banging on for years about how you ‘identify with’ the character on stage and how theatre can give you a ‘visceral’ experience – and, finally, along comes science to say that, yes, when you watch Hamlet struggling to contain his fury and vengeance while questioning his motives and logic, if the actor is successfully embodying that very detailed conflict, everyone in the audience (or at least those who are watching), as they see and mirror all those tiny physical changes in rhythm, posture, inflection and movement, are ‘feeling it in their gut’ too. Or in the motor planning area for feeling it in their gut. There is, as you might expect, much interest and anticipation to see what comes out of this field: what kind of actions produce an effect on an audience member, and which don’t?
However… not all of the papers on the AON agree on how it works. After a recent chat with Dr Caroline Catmur at Kings College, I sent her an email asking to clarify some of the interpretations that I had made. To my surprise, the question wasn’t hopelessly naive. So here are three ideas for how the mirror neuron system might work – with apologies to the scientists who work in the filed for any misinterpretations I might have made.
Model A (a reactive model)
I see Susan and a banana. As Susan reaches for the banana, my matching motor planning areas respond by firing synchronously.
This should allow me to accurately identify what she is doing, and may possibly indirectly contribute to my understanding her intention (to take the banana, to push the banana over towards me, to crush the banana) via improved interoception of the movement if that helps with this. (Other brain systems also contribute to interpret her intention.)
Model B (a goal-directed model)
I see Susan and a banana. As Susan reaches towards the banana, I perceive or guess her intention (in non-motor areas) – ‘to take the banana’ – and whatever motor planning areas I would normally use to reach for the banana fire.
This may allow me to better track the flow of her intentions rather than matching only the actions.
Model C (a predictive model)
I see Susan and a banana. My motor planning areas fire in the areas which I would use to reach for the banana – because from the look of the banana (ripe, tasty) and what I know of Susan (likes bananas) this is the most likely outcome.
This may allow me to be ‘ahead’ of Susan. The interoceptive experience might influence my predictions. Deviations from my prediction (in what she actually does) tell me more about her intention and might increase my attention.
In a sense the only difference between B and C is that in C I am simulating before I see any action from Susan (this can surely be experimentally tested). Caroline observes also that if C is correct, in ambiguous situations the observer’s motor system should show reduced activation – as if there is no prediction, there is no engagement. C (and to an extent B) turn the system from an action observation network into an action modelling network. It returns us to some of the eggy theory of mind questions – do I model what I would do in that situation, or what I think Susan would do? And how would I do that without imagining a complete Susan in my head?
Both work with different implications for the theatre context. When I see Hamlet paused at a moment of suspension, Claudius vulnerable and at prayer – am I feeling what I see in the actor’s (or puppet’s) body? Or am I imagining how I would act in that situation and somehow ‘living it out’ in parallel with the action on stage, the performance of the actor constantly compared with my instincts?