Neuroscience and drowning in a livingroom.

Neuroscience and drowning in a livingroom.

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I’ll start this with a little story.

When I was about 7 years old, I was sitting watching one of those Saturday afternoon War movies which used to pepper our TV screens in the 70’s. It was called ‘We Dive at Dawn’ and, as you can probably imagine, was full of submarines and testosterone. Sat beside my elder brother we were wrapped by the narrative …. but the point I want to make is deeper than how propaganda can grab hold of a boy … Toward the end of the film, a torpedo slammed into the side of the ship. Pandaemonium broke out as submariners scrabbled around to fight for rapidly vanishing air pockets as the water rose in the cramped compartments.

While I sat watching this horror, my brother decided to point out, with no short supply of derision, that I was craning my neck and breathing through the pursed lips of a drowning man. I was watching the action as if I were there, going through the same thing. A shortness in my panicked breath, my heart pounding in my chest and a sense of claustrophobia coursing through me…. As you can imagine, I straightened my head and continued to watch from a more ‘Normal’ position … but secretly I was still trying to hold my breath. Since that time, I’ve always been aware of my response to well told narrative. If it’s a good comedy, I laugh like a drain, if a thriller, I am thrilled to the point of having white knuckles up to my elbows and there is never any need to try and jerk tears from me if the story is a sad one, much to my children’s delight.

Cute story, Eh?

But you see, for years I thought I was just a bit sensitive … easily manipulated …

It turns out that there is a neurological reason why I did what I did, and that reason was not discovered or formalised until quite recently.

It turns out that around the 1980’s a group of scientists including Giacomo Rizzolatti and Giuseppe Di Pellegrino discovered a very interesting area of research kind of by accident.

They were in Italy doing research into the motor-neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys … this is not to imply that you have to go to Italy to do brain research on monkeys … They just happened to be there …

The research went something like this.

Let’s put some monitors on the monkeys while they pick stuff up … something they want .. food for example, and record how their brains respond when they pick them up.

Being scientists, they had to do this for quite a long time, with quite a few monkeys, and one day they were tidying up after a long day of monitoring and, in the case of the monkeys, picking up food, when one of the scientists was a little tardy about removing the neural apparatus, while the other guy was a bit more efficient about tidying up the food left over.

As the second chap picked up the food, the monkeys brains fired as if it were them picking it up … Think about that for a moment …. the monkeys brains sent out messages that they were moving their arms and grasping food when they saw another, of a different species, pick something up.

At first they may have called this the ‘Monkey See-Monkey Do’ response, but soon the neurons involved were named Mirror-Neurons, and that was the start of something quite revolutionary in the understanding of social psychology. It turns out that these Mirror neurons are not only part of monkey’s brain function, but appear to be an active part of how humans experience and engage with the world.

When we watch, hear, or even imagine an physical process or event occurring, we experience it in an intrinsic and cognitively profound way. On a tiny level we reproduce the movements of others within ourselves. You may have experienced something similar… a sense of pressure upon you when seeing someone get a wave dumped on them while surfing … even if you don’t surf. The change in breathing while watching a high-wire act go through their routine. Feeling exhausted after watching a boxing match or a particularly good action sequence in a movie.. hence my opening story.

Working in theatre and film is all the easier once one knows that those watching will experience, on a very real and personal level, the peril, joy and anguish we explore. We just have to be good at it … and we are all too willing to point out those who are, and those who aren’t.

It would appear that we are ‘hard-wired’ to have an empathic response to those around us.

Now this could be taken as a reason to believe that human beings are fundamentally good and caring individuals, who are aware of the experiences of others in a profound, visceral and compassionate way … and that it’s just education which teaches us to be grasping, acquisitive and selfish … and to an extent, I hope that is true … but I have watched many small children and heard their parents saying things like ‘Give that back. You only want it because he/she has it.’

Of course they do …. Their Mirror-Neurons have informed them that the other kid picked that up and showed a level of satisfaction on their face when hold or playing with it.

It is a shame that this piece of science cannot justify a move toward us all becoming relaxed and caring hippies in a fare and compassionate world.

I will continue to use this stuff in my work, though … it is really helpful when creating a believable character …. and I’ll keep looking through scientific journals and anything else I can find, just in case they come up with a cogent reason to justify me wanting to be a nice guy.