Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Myths, Mirror Neurons, and Stanislavski

I have much to do before I really will feel ready to publish this article.  Many colleagues have graciously read it and given me truly constructive criticism.  However, because my students are asking me about it so frequently, I am posting it here.  If you read it and have observations, criticisms, annoyances, or whatever, please feel free to comment.  I am not wedded to anything in it but the ideas and the transmission of these ideas.

“Haven’t you ever been aware, in life or onstage, when in communication with other people, of a current emanating from your will flowing through your eyes, your fingertips, your skin? What shall we call this method of communication? Emitting and receiving rays, signals? Radiating out and radiating in? In the absence of an alternative terminology let us stick with these words since they illustrate very clearly the kind of communication I have to talk to you about. In the near future, when this invisible current has been studied by science, a more appropriate terminology will be established.”[1] Konstantin Stanislavski.

 These rays/signals, radiating out and radiating in were encountered in a laboratory in Parma, Italy in 1996 by a team of neurophysiologists led by Giacomo Rizolatti. This team was studying the brain responses of Macaque monkeys when grasping objects with their hands.

“ . . . the neurophysiologist, Vittorio Gallese was moving around the lab during a lull in the day’s experiment. A monkey was sitting quietly in the chair, waiting for her next assignment. Suddenly, just as Vittorio reached for something, he does not remember what, he heard a burst of activity from the computer that was connected to the electrodes that had been surgically implanted in the monkey’s brain . . .Vittorio immediately thought the reaction was strange. The monkey was just sitting quietly, not intending to grasp anything, yet this neuron affiliated with the grasping action had fired nevertheless.”

What this meant was undeniable; the idea that monkey see, monkey “virtually” do is true.

We now partially understand what Stanislavski knew all along; the waves or rays are known as mirror neurons. This article will attempt to describe the implications of this research for actors, directors, and acting teachers through an examination of myth and archetype as a means to access such neuronal response in both actor and audience.  If one considers that responses to archetypal images, actions, characters are on some level physiological, it would then follow that such images would excite this type of mirror neuronal activity.

Mirror neurons, simply put, are elements in the brain that fire unconsciously in the presence of another person’s activity. Consider a baseball fan watching a player hit a ball; Fmri imaging research shows that mirror neurons light up in the same area of the fan’s brain as those in the brain of the hitter. The viewers of the game and the player have the same neuronal pattern; their brains are synchronized by the firing of these mirror neurons. Furthermore, if our fan in the stands has at some point actually played baseball, the neurons will be even more excited than those in someone who has never played or seen a ballgame. What this implies is that we as humans respond to recognizable actions in recognizable situations that because of their familiarity have the power to engage us on a biological level.

 At the base of dramatic texts is the telling of stories (either linear or non-linear, spoken or silent) that deal with basic human difficulties, and the attempt by the characters to find solutions to those problems. In order for a story to be recognizable to an audience, actors must do actions with intentions that are meant to overcome these obstacles, just as the baseball player needs to overcome the pitcher and the fielders by hitting, bunting or sacrificing in order to win the game. Actions for actors therefore can be understood as something done either physically or verbally with intentions. And as many acting teachers have found, if the action/intention is conceived of physically, its effectiveness for the actor and for his/her partner is stronger. This is true partially because such ideas move toward basic animal urges that are stronger and less sophisticated than the more shaded gradations of language usage.  My belief is that such physical imagery on the part of the actor activates the actor’s mirror neurons, simply through the kinesthetic visualization necessary to conceive it. Another aspect of mirror neuron research strongly suggests that these neurons pick up not only the physical aspects of action but also the intention behind it for the viewer.

As we know, scenes and acts are compilations, either linear or episodic, of actions/intentions leading to desired ends. It therefore follows that the viewer’s mirror neurons will be physically reinforced by the clarity of the actor’s actions and intentions. This clarity can be strengthened through the actor’s commitment to finding the physical action beneath the psychological. Joseph Campbell says in Transformations of Myth Through Time "Art is the clothing of a revelation." We as theatre artists must translate into visible reality, the myths and revelations presented to us by our playwrights and poets.

Physically conceived action/intention can be a direct and non-intellectual translation of deeply seated feelings, needs, and desires that cannot be fully verbalized. And these are revealed and understood partially as a result of the activity of mirror neurons.

Plays have as their skeletons, a mix of the essential relationships and stories that in the past have been explicated in myth and ritual. They constitute memories begun in forgotten times and in dreams enacted around campfires. When the actor or director or designer digs deeply to find the bones of these narratives under the layers formed by the accretions of time and place, and reveals these bones bare, their mythical and archetypal natures are released and form a bridge for the viewer to the essential meanings obscured by day-to-day life. Both actor and audience are bound together in the time that is “Once upon a time.”

Theatre from this perspective can constitute some of the most compelling rituals remaining in our society.  It is as if, in re-enacting the myth beneath the plot, the actors awaken a set of mirror neurons that remove the separateness of the audience and join it with the actors and with itself. For such ritual re-enactments to take place, powerful and archetypal characters and relationships must be called to the place of battle and engagement.

Jung suggests that an archetype is a person, a relationship, or a situation that is so rooted in our DNA that in its presence we are moved in emotionally. Archetypal characters are embodiments of powers and energies whose clashes are the eternal working out of the joyful/sorrowful songs of life and death.They may be called by different names in different times and places because they must speak to the individual culture; however, whatever the name, the acknowledgement of the energy or power being personified can be said to be universal because these powers emerge from our shared biology not from our separate societies.

If an actor’s job is to engage the audience either emotionally or intellectually, it would then follow that when she is truly effective, it is because she has hit upon an archetype of some kind either consciously or unconsciously and hooked into the actions underlying the archetypal role. She is channeling, if you will, a shamanistic activity, and when that occurs, the mirror neurons of all are engaged because of the shared recognition of the mysterious comedy/tragedy of life.

“All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes. This is particularly true of religious ideas, but the central concepts of science, philosophy, and ethics are no exception to this rule. In their present form they are variants of archetypal ideas created by consciously applying and adapting these ideas to reality. For it is the function of consciousness not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.” Carl  Jung

To this end, it seems appropriate that actors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, and acting teachers study myth, ritual, and archetypes and find ways to consciously translate these unconscious powers.

Joseph Campbell says that a myth is a recounting of a hero’s journey out of his community or place of balance, and into a fearful world where he must confront fearful powers before returning to the place of peace. His return brings with it a new knowledge for the hero and the community itself. I began my own exploration of the idea of “Acting Myth” following Campbell’s idea that the essence of any hero’s journey is to risk the confrontation with chaos whether willingly or not in order to grow.

The hero shakes up the world and is shaken by it in turn; there is no other way for meaningful growth to happen. As Nietzsche says, "All learning is suffering, and all suffering, learning." This exit into the world of shapes and trials is simply a replaying of the birth trauma, and the desire to return to the womb of unknowingness. This idea is central to tragedy, but as is obvious, it applies equally to all forms of drama. The hero must do things that are out of his/her sphere of experience in order to overcome the obstacles on the way. These kinds of actions are inherently theatrical in their uniqueness; they need not be logical in this world, but because we are in a mythical time and place, they are appropriate. To return to the idea of mirror neurons, one could say that the witnessing of  this surprising but recognizable quest, will create a more excited neuronal activity because the ideas presented emanate from our shared biology, but the situation is changed in such a way as to draw us in.

 I further believe that, as in life, every character in a play believes him or herself to be the hero of his or her own life. So, as the actor prepares, he or she must examine the journey of their own characters. If everyone in the story seems him or herself as the protagonist, the resulting collisions are more profound than the idea that the hero has a subordinate cast. Each character in the play brings a particular power to the world, a visceral attachment to his or her primal antecedents.  None are more or less important, none more right or wrong, none either good or bad.

Because life is the never ending struggle to balance order with chaos, government with anarchy, freedom with restraint. I believe that every character is motivated by the desire for more order or for more chaos depending on their given circumstances. I use the word chaos because of its ancient underpinnings for western civilization and its links to terror, sex, and death . However, as a means of speaking to my students, I often employ the archetypal conflict of pragmatist(order) vs. romantic(chaos) or, and more easily, Peter Pan (chaotic, romantic, right brained, etc) versus Wendy (orderly, pragmatic, left brained). From this perspective, Peter Pan is the eternal willful child with the possibility of both cruelty and total dependence (puer aeternus) and Wendy is the eternal mother (mater aeternus) with equal control of nurturance and abandonment. Peter’s ability to fly is an ancient dream of immortality, of breaking from the earth, of escaping death as symbolized by human limitation and Wendy, the true hero of the story, escapes the earth to fly off with a godlike creature in order that she may choose her destiny consciously rather than mindlessly.  The story has roots in the primary myths of the Middle East.

The two archetypes desire and need each other, and fear each other in almost equal parts. The yin and yang is quite obvious. Peter, fears that more order will trap him, bury him alive, shackle him to a world of responsibilities, a diminishment off of his identity/freedom, thus removing his god-like immortality. In other words, the female power may pull him into the earth, the domain of women who are the keepers of life and death. Wendy, fears falling from heights unknown and “never landing”, of always clutching for a life rope which is eternally slipping from her grasp, of being unable to fulfill her procreative and authentic destiny as a human woman, to relinquish her creative powers. If she remains in Neverland she loses her immortality as realized in her progeny, she will be as if dead to the world. she will "never-be." The conflict between these two as they attempt to find a balance is for me, the never-ending story at the very bottom-most layer of life. And with all of these ideas, we begin class.

The remainder of the article will be an examination and recitation of the exercises we did and the scenes we did in my MFA 2 classes in 2008 and 2009 to try to utilize these ideas.

1 comment:

  1. I found a couple of minor grammar errors you might want to fix (because SAT prep has eaten my brain!)

    "If everyone in the story seems him or herself as the protagonist, the resulting collisions are more profound than the idea that the hero has a subordinate cast."

    Seems should be sees, right?
    And there is a 'parallelism' error. You compare collisions to idea (instead of idea to idea, collisions to collisions.) So it should read something like "resulting collisions are more profound than those based on the idea that the hero has a subordinate cast."

    Also, the very next sentence is a fragment, because it starts with because.
    "Because life is the never ending struggle to balance order with chaos,...with restraint. I believe that every..."
    So to fix that, the period should become a comma, or an independent clause should be added to the first sentence to make it a complete sentence.