Setting the Scene: Musical Theatre and Cognitive Neuroscience

Alfred Eisenstadt’s 1963 photograph of children watching a puppet theatre performance
Alfred Eisenstadt’s 1963 photograph of children watching a puppet theatre performance of Saint George and the Dragon at the moment the dragon is slayed. Life Magazine.

Dr. Sherry J. Kerr’s essay was first printed in the final report of the three year study of The JumpStart Theatre Middle School Program conducted by The Centers for Research on Creativity. The study was commissioned by the Educational Theatre Association. Dr. Kerr served as a Senior Research Associate and Kim Zanti served as Assistant Director.  

Acting is about as complete and multimodal as you can get. It’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s cognitive, and it’s social.~ Art Kramer, cognitive research scientist

Tell the Story. Sing the Songs. Teachers learn these two mantras to focus their student’s attention on the most important elements of acting in a musical. In that sense, these mantras are practical strategies. Yet, they are so much more. These actions of telling and singing give students opportunities to exercise, develop, and feel the power of their humanity, bringing their bodies, minds and souls to the process. Teachers can also use these mantras in their teaching practice, across curriculum, to deepen and sustain student learning.

Who can claim that they haven’t felt their heart rate increase as the protagonist faces danger? Or shed tears at the suffering of innocent characters? Who among us hasn’t laughed and cheered as the hero outsmarts the villain? As an observer of theatre, students find themselves reacting physically and emotionally to situations that characters encounter. As actors in roles, students imagine and behave as if they are other than themselves, in some other place, at another time. Enduring stories and plays have the power to alter what we believe is possible, the way that we think, and the life decisions we make.

 Telling the Story

Theatre is a meaning making experience that helps us to interpret life and understand the world. For youth, that world is often hyper-judgmental, where split second impressions can lead to a student being ridiculed, bullied, ostracized, or worse. When these are the potential consequences of certain attitudes or behaviors, where can a young person experiment with the consequence of a decision and express their deeper emotions? For many students, theatre is the only place where instead of suppressing their feelings, they can examine them in the light of the characters they are involved with. Students who participate in theatre have a safe environment where they can be who they are by being who they aren’t. A place where everyone is different and united under a single purpose — to tell the story.

While we have known for centuries the impact of theater on our emotions and its ability to give us insights into other worlds, we haven’t known why or how it works. Theatre scholars and advocates would do well to explore what neuroscience reveals about brain functions and how such functions relate to theatre and performance. Yet it was quite by accident that a research team discovered that when a monkey watches another monkey or human perform certain actions, the neurons in the brain of the one who watches fires in the same way as the one who performed the action.

These particular neurons are motor neurons that carry messages from the brain to the muscles and activate a precise part of the brain that has a mirroring system. This seems to allow us to experience the actions of others at a very basic motor level. And if the experience produces an authentic feeling on a deeper level, the same neurotransmitters are released as if the experience were real. When we feel for the character, we develop empathy for them. The experience of empathy is an essential character trait for students to develop, because it allows them to better understand how others are likely to react to a situation.

As Robin Lithgow, former Director of the Arts Education Branch of the second largest school district in the country, Los Angeles Unified School District, noted,“When a drama teacher asserts that one of the primary things his students are learning is empathy, that teacher is absolutely right. The students are developing their mirror neurons. They are learning to care.”The capacity for empathy can transfer to others in similar situations as well as enhance our ability to see our own world more clearly.

The late Dr. James Catterall put this concept into the context of the stage in his Creativity Playbook chapter, “A Neuroscience of Art and Human Empathy: Aligning Behavioral and Brain Imaging Evidence.”

Theatre and drama offer a quintessential platform for engaging empathic dispositions. The actor must develop a sense of a character to initiate a role – understanding that character in a sociocultural context. More than this, the actor must grow to understand other characters in a production – empathizing in turn to put the action on a footing suited to who the players intend to be.

Most teachers consider student’s interests, their social context, and the issues they face individually and as part of a community, when they choose their play for the year. Musical theatre offers classroom teachers, across curriculum, a myriad of opportunities to make connections to the characters and world of the play that guide students to reflect on their lives, the world at large, and their place in it.

Stephen Koelsch describes the neurology of music in his book,“Brain and Music.”He writes,“As soon as music hits our ear it stimulates spinal motor neurons and vestibular, visceral systems.” He identifies the function of the core emotional network that is responsible for the feeling we get when we listen to music. The three main areas of this network are the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens and the hippocampus.

Singing the Songs

Dr. Catterall addressed music, emotion, as well, in the Creativity Playbook chapter: 

Music ties to emotion and empathy in the case of making music as well as simply in listening. Playing music in ensembles is as much a human community experience as a music experience. Musicians develop feeling and understanding for the emotions, as well as for the joys, needs, and predicaments we might say, of fellow musicians – and for the feelings and understandings of themselves as performers. Making music is a fluid enterprise, requiring adaptations or modifications along the way, at the behest of a musical director whose “needs” and concerns may be worth understanding, or in a nearly autonomous response to the sound as it goes forward – slipping in and out of grooves, adjusting volume or timbre, or just sitting out. Listening to music unleashes a number of imagined human situations where empathy may be involved. Imagining you are a cellist, or the Who’s drummer, or singer Eartha Kitt, or maestro Gustavo Dudamel puts you in juxtaposition with another as sure as seeing a performer in concert does.

A compelling argument for educators to offer musical theatre programs, as well as to incorporate theatre and music into the school curriculum, has to do with the way that both art forms directly affect our emotional and memory systems. Current findings on the neurobiology of storytelling show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in better understanding and better recall (Cahill, 1995).

Humankind has many long traditions of oral storytelling that preserve stories for innumerable generations. Likewise, there is a powerful relationship between music, emotion, and memory. For thousands of years, songs have been used as a mnemonic device. Song taps into multiple retrieval systems and can bring forth vivid memories of important stories, knowledge, or special times in our lives.

Educators are learning from recent neuroscience that emotion and cognition, feeling and thinking are interconnected and that without emotions, memories are not stored in the long-term memory system. In other words, we remember what we care about and what is relevant to our lives. In order for the brain to store information in our long-term memory it has to matter. In his book, “The Feeling of What Happens,” Antonio Damasio writes, “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang states in her book “Emotions, Learning, and the Brain,”

Current research on the interrelatedness of emotions and cognition reveals that emotion plays a critical role in attention, learning, and memory. If they [students] feel no connection to the knowledge they learn in school, the academic content will seem emotionally meaningless to them; even if they manage to regurgitate the factual information, it will lay barren and without any influence on their decisions and behavior. Without emotion students feel no connection to the knowledge they learn in school. 

Dr. Immordino-Yang takes it another step further to advise and caution educators:

If emotions are not taken seriously when they occur and are not given appropriate room to influence decisions and thinking in the classroom, the effective integration of emotion and cognition in learning will be compromised…for good cognition to manifest in the classroom and beyond, emotions need to be an honored part of the learning experience all along.7

A teacher’s task is to engage the class in explorations that go deeper than their preconceptions and increase their understanding of the stuff of life. There are teachers who intuitively use drama and theatre to light fires in young minds. These teachers can connect the stories and plays back to student’s personal sense of self and help them adapt to making choices that optimize their journey towards adulthood.  Teachers/directors can discover ways to implement theatre and music activities as highly effective learning strategies in their content areas. Cognitive neuroscience research strongly endorses these teaching methods that tap into the emotions and prior experiences of students

As business and education leaders assess the values and skills students will need to thrive in the 21st century global economy, they agree that problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, adaptability and creativity are essential. These are also some of the skills that students learn through their involvement in the JumpStart Theatre Program.e

“None of us are perfect, but all over the place in every community and field of endeavor, there are people who are working generatively with the challenges before us; meeting them, rising to their best human capacities — at least on their good days — and creating new possibilities and realities. They’re not publicized, they’re not investigated, but that landscape is as real and important as that landscape of everything we can point out as failing and corrupt and catastrophic. “

~ Krista Tippett
journalist, author, and entrepreneur