There’s no other way to put this: Indre Viskontas loves brains; the prolific scientist/soprano is clearly enthralled by the squishy stuff that sits behind our eyeballs (I assume it’s squishy; she didn’t say). Last week Viskontas delivered a keynote address at the annual conference of the American Association of Theater Educators at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center. In a lavish ballroom glittering with art deco crystal chandeliers, the good doctor shared some choice data from the neuroscience revolution that was brought on by MRI’s capacity to look inside living brains. And while she casually flung around terms like “hippocampus” and “somato-sensory cortex,” she lightened her talk with analogies to playdough and pictures of muffins with faces. It was all to the point: “what can brain studies say to arts teachers?”
Quite a bit, it turns out. The presentation focused on brain plasticity and memory as they relate to learning. As Viskontas immediately pointed out, our brains are not computers: they’re organic, mutable organs, and though they are most malleable when we are babies, we can still form new neural connections and pathways: basically you can mold our brain— like playdough! And if it gets dried-out and kind of hard, there is a magical ingredient that can soften it back up again. (OK she didn’t say “magical ingredient,” but the brain as she describes it sounds like an alchemical laboratory, churning out all kinds of powerful potions). She explains how this ingredient activates the hippocampus (a little bit of goo that sits near the bottom of the brain), to send a hormone with the catchy name of “brain-derived neurotropic factor” (BDNF) hither and yon; that stuff changes our neurons and helps us form new connections, i.e. new memories (a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine—which sounds flammable but is apparently quite safe—is also involved). What is the magic, brain-changing ingredient that lets us grow new neural pathways? For once, it’s a common word: attention. Yup, just by paying attention to something, we tell the hippocampus to start rewiring our neurons (my apologies if this is vastly simplified or even wrong: it’s what my notes say, anyway).
So where does theater come in? Using entertaining examples— like the muffin faces and a 1944 black and white cartoon featuring two triangles and a circle that had the audience roaring with laughter— Dr. Viskontas demonstrated that we are evolutionarily hard-wired to respond to stories. Who did what, to whom, how it happened, what happened next, and how it felt, are topics that seduce our attention like dancing girls waving flashing neon semaphore flags (I wouldn’t be surprised if each of Aristotle’s famous six elements of drama had its own neighborhood of the brain). Because we re-create our memories every time we recall them (as opposed to, say, having a hard drive in our heads), more vivid and emotion-rich stories generate better recall: if you want someone to learn something, put it in a great story. Viskontas mentioned other studies with interesting dramatic implications: one determined that ratcheting up tension makes art more compelling; another, somewhat contradictory study found that people who knew how a story ended actually reported enjoying it a bit more than those who’d had no spoilers; they were able to relax and appreciate how things happened, without the stress of trying to predict the outcome—another thing we’re hard-wired to do.
This is all very cool stuff, and Viskontas took care to bring it back to practical questions, like: “How can we use this to help students do better in school?” and even “How can I convince stingy administrators to fund my drama program?” In the capstone of her talk, Viskontas contrasted two different styles of motivating students. In one, the “fixed mindset,” students were praised for being talented, smart, and so on. In the “growth mindset,” they were praised for the effort they put into learning. The evidence shows that fixed mindset students have less fun learning, give up quicker when faced with tough problems, and are more likely to lie about their performance, while the growth-oriented students have fun, persevere and rarely cheat. This has clear implications for educators of all kinds.
Taken all together, Dr. Viskontas delivered a rich banquet of neurological findings to nourish and inspire teachers, and she did it with a trained performer’s grace, and welcome accents of humor: at one point she flashed a slide of an organizational chart of the brain’s components and their interactions: a wall-sized diagram with hundreds of tiny boxes and arrows going every which way. “But we’re not going to get into that,” she said— to the great relief of the audience, whose eyes were just beginning to glaze over from all the hardcore science. And at the outset she acknowledged that “Art begins where science leaves off,” and that artists can help to generate the questions that scientists study. “We can learn more from you that you can from us,” she conceded.
She’s an impressive, engaging speaker, plainly enthusiastic about her discipline and eager to share the wealth. As well as being Professor of Science and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and an adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, she’s published a ton of scholarly articles, co-hosted a documentary series on the Oprah network, edits the journal Neurocase, and co-hosts the podcast Inquiring Minds. PLUS, being the founder and director of Vocallective, a vocal chamber music ensemble, and Opera on Tap, a group for the popularization of opera.
It would have been really interesting to hear her make some connections between her research and her experience as a performer (though she did apparently participate wholeheartedly in the conference’s workshops and theater games). Now, if she’d ever be willing to reveal the neurological basis for her energy and charisma, she’d have people lined up down the block.
“Resonate: How effective performance training engages the brain” by Dr. Indre Viskontas
at the annual conference of American Association of Theater Educators, Friday, August 7th at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center