Emotions, Empathy and Drama

In my blog, I am intending to explore the neurological nature of theatrical performance. In the domain of Affective Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology, it seems that the focus of most researchers stays on the processes involved in the genuine human emotional activity. Such activity as Acting, for example, involves mostly artificially stimulated emotions, and yet it requires full commitment and therefore its emotional processes are often labeled genuine, even though they are motivated by the need to perform. In real life, emotions are often uncontrolled. They are labeled as spontaneous, they don’t call before they show up at someone’s door, they just happen. In the Performing Arts, it is quite the opposite: emotions are provoked in performers, who then (ideally) receive reactions and empathy from the audience. I am interested in physical and psychological manifestations of artificially/purposefully stimulated emotive processing. I am hoping to demystify emotions using a scientific approach to the most ephemeral aspect of human behavior and nature. I am also exploring the concept of emotional prosody and the audial/musical/vocal basis of human emotions.

Human beings embody, express, process, inhibit, function, act, feel. All the verbs I just listed, along with many more, have as their sources the essential parts of what constitutes a human: body, mind, emotion, and behavior. In his dissertation, Kemp (2008) states that cognitive science acknowledges the central role of the body and enables a better understanding of understand the relationship between thought and expression (p. 20). Acting, on the other hand, does not explain the body-mind-soul relationship, but rather provides the richest material for exploration of and experimentation with human emotions. How does theatrical performance/activity conceptually relate to the cognitive science and affective neuroscience? The main things that both disciplines share is the idea of duality of the human nature. Are the emotions manifested through the body, or is the body producing emotions as integral parts of its purpose? Following the same logic, the acting traditions argue: can the physical work stimulate imagination to the point that the actor lives through the emotions of the character, or does the psychological approach to acting guarantee deep understanding and therefore meaningful expression? Kemp (2008) proposes that “the two approaches are in fact representative of positions on a continuum, rather than being mutually exclusive or necessarily oppositional. The empirically based concept of the embodied mind provides a foundation that explains the effectiveness of approaches to training and rehearsal that consciously link physicality and environment in the expression of meaning” (p . 24).

Unfortunately, until recently researchers and thinkers didn’t have a luxury to be inspired by scientific evidences of neurological activity and embodied cognition. And yet the juxtaposition of emotional and mental has always been present both in the science and the arts. Historically, acting has always been reflecting the latest trends in philosophical and cultural thought. For generations and even centuries, acting style maintained a very high level of artificiality, and what we know now as “believable acting” was simply a nonsense. In the early 19th century, just several decades before Psychology emerged, Henry Siddons and Johann Jacob Engel summarized the European pre-realistic modern acting style in their book “Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action”. The book describes and illustrates several emotions and their physical expressions, in a way that is very similar to the system of discrete emotions used in Neuroscience. The pre-realistic school of acting assumed that “habit becomes a kind of nature” (p. 3). By providing illustrations of various gestures and poses each of which was connected to a specific emotion, the authors made sure that the conventional emotional expressions get institutionalized via theatre and therefore become internalized by many generations of theatre practitioners. Before there was a Psychology, acting relied on captured generalized emotional stereotypes.

One thing they were missing. Fake, artificial or not, emotions kept engaging the audiences by making them feel and empathize. As Lewis, Gibson and Lannon simply put it – Detecting an emotion changes the observer’s own emotional tone in the direction of the emotion he’s observing. (p.4) Some researchers of the 20th century would argue that theatre owed its glory to the mirror neurons.

Nearly 20 years ago mirror neurons were discovered in chimpanzees by Rizolatti and colleagues (Drenko, 2013, p. 26). After a series of tests, it was concluded that the mammalian brain is capable of engaging in what Lewis (2000) calls “the internal neural simulation of behavior it observes in others” (p.5). This theory clearly has a great potential to literally explain the functionality of performance in general and of theatre in particular. Since the beginning of the Western theatre tradition as we know it, the famous author of Poetics Aristotle described the main functions of Tragedy as Fear, Pity and Catharsis. While many historians argue whether those translations from Ancient Greek are accurate or even if Aristotle existed to begin with, there is not really much authentic evidence to work with since Greeks didn’t leave us their secrets on a flash drive. Assuming that this interpretation of Aristotle’s suggested dramatic functions is roughly compatible with the actual truth, we see how the list includes an affective state (fear/terror), empathy (pity) and purgation (catharsis).

Below is the full Aristotelian definition of tragedy: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions” (Butcher, S. H. (Ed.). (1917). The poetics of Aristotle. Macmillan)

Aristotle has been immortalized as the “Father” of Western Philosophy, Drama, and even of the Neuroscience. While his relation to the neuroscience may seem like a stretch, it worth mentioning that Aristotle was a trained doctor and researcher himself. While he acknowledged the duality of human nature manifested in tension between the mind and the heart, he did not believe in the brain’s involvement in emotions. (Gross, p. 247) If only he lived to see the mirror neurons, he would have known that empathy, essential component of Theatre, calls the brain its home. Empathy has been inscribed in the history of drama since the known beginning of it, as well as in the history of human kind. In the review article, Bernhardt and colleagues (2012) conclude that multiple studies, mostly based on empathy for pain, showed that “empathic responses recruit, to some extent, brain areas similar to those engaged during the corresponding first-person state” (p.). Linderberger (2010) describes the mirror neuronal process as two consecutive phases: stage one – imitation if the observed actions, second – internalization of the information and as a result the understanding of it (p.4). Those two stages may indeed constitute true empathy, and yet they only seem to be manifested in someone who is experiencing the event/emotion/story vicariously. When applied to the people impersonating and embodying characters in a story, the empathy cannot be enough.

Obviously, there is an endless number of acting techniques. The ones that prevail in the times contemporary with the modern neuroscience tend to be based on the psychological approach. Realistic acting is assumed to be the most common acting style people are exposed to, whether via television, cinema or live performances. We are going to set aside the improvisational methods and other non-traditional experimental approaches: in order to stay focused, let’s assume that generally realistic actors approach a character in a generally similar way. And this way involves two stages of processing. First, the actor gets acquainted with the character through reading his/her story. During this stage of the process, the actor is in the audience’s shoes: the incoming information resonates with his/her mind and perpetuates empathy. The actor’s goal is, however, not only to comprehend affectively the story and the character, but to undergo a process of transformation in order to portray/embody the given material. The actor must exist in the imaginary, or given circumstances: therefore, logically, his/her body needs to adjust and to start functioning as the one of the character. Since the body clearly includes the brain, can it be assumed that the actor rewires his/her brain to function as the one of the non-existing character, too? Kemp (2008) suggests that “the experience of emotion is something that is part of a disembodied consciousness rather than the processes of the body” (p.21). In this case, the emotions and the mind seem to be rather merged together, which contradicts the very traditional heart/mind dichotomy. But if we take a generalized realistic acting technique and trace every step of character’s coming to life, it appears that the consciousness and emotion walk hand in hand.

Once the actor internalizes the information about the character such as the background, demographics, looks, relationship history, beliefs, lifestyle (pretty much the equivalent of anyone’s first meeting with a psychologist), he/she connects the personal history and the given circumstances of the material that is being performed. Where is the line between the actor and the character? Where does the actor stop making decisions and begins choosing guided by emotions of his character? Creating a character is essentially reconstructing a human being from scratch, attributing all human aspects to his/her being/existence. Emotions then become the driving force of this process of creation. On stage or on screen, the actor creates a life, re-creates and re-tells a story. Without living emotions, the audience wouldn’t buy it (literally and figuratively).

More on current struggle to create an interdisciplinary bond between cognitive psychology and acting:


Bernhardt, B. C., & Singer, T. (2012). The neural basis of empathy. Annual review of neuroscience, 35, 1-23.

Butcher, S. H. (Ed.). (1917). The poetics of Aristotle. Macmillan.

Drinko, C. (2013). Theatrical improvisation, consciousness, and cognition. Palgrave Macmillan.

Engel, J. J., Siddons, H., & Engel, M. (1822). Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action: Adapted from the English Drama: from a Work on the Subject by M. Engel.. Sherwood, Neely and Jones.

Gross, C. (1995). Aristotle on the Brain. The Neuroscientist, 1, 245-250.

Kemp, R. J. (2010). Embodied acting: cognitive foundations of performance (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh).

Lewis, Gibson and Lannon. A primer on the neurobiology of inspiration. Published at http://www.terrypearce.com/pdf/PREREAD_gibson_et_al_061024.pdf

Lindenberger, H. (2010). Arts in the Brain; or, What Might Neuroscience Tell Us? Toward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts, ed. Frederick Luis Aldama, Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 13-35


3 thoughts on “Emotions, Empathy and Drama

  1. “Are the emotions manifested through the body, or is the body producing emotions as integral parts of its purpose?” Good question. One thing that occurs to me is maybe it’s not a matter of “or” – it can be both. Also, the latter part reminds me of the facial feedback hypothesis that putting one’s face into the configuration of a target emotion leads one to feel that emotion.

  2. This blog brought up so many questions. First, you said:

    The actor’s goal is, however, not only to comprehend affectively the story and the character, but to undergo a process of transformation in order to portray/embody the given material

    This immediately made me think of Heath Ledger. It’s been a while since I read much about it, but I think some of his journal was released after his death and it spoke of this transformation to become the Joker character. The character is very dark, and apparently he could not reverse this transformation.

    In the beginning of your post you talked about the institutionalizing of emotional gestures and expressions. While these expressions may not perfectly reflect ones we see in real life, they clearly serve a purpose and work. This reminded me of Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s Disease and has extreme difficulty in producing these emotional expressions. However, his acting training has helped mitigate this. He has managed to get back to acting (a little), and I’m amazed at how expressive he can be. And he clearly relies a lot on these institutionalized gestures. For example, it can be difficult for people with PD to raise his eye brows. I’ve seen Fox make up for this by opening eyes more and using more of his body making an upward motion to give a similar look and feel.

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