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What Can Neuroscience Tell us about Greek Theatre?

During the Lorenz Eitner Lecture at Stanford, classics scholar Peter Meineck explored how cognitive research methods shed light on the ancient and contemporary theatrical experience.

By Stephen Sansom

Performer and classicist Peter Meineck spent the last few minutes of a presentation wearing a mask. Masks are better known for hiding emotions than revealing them, but in an interactive demonstration Meineck showed the audience how the human brain is capable of inferring basic emotions without words or even a view of an actor's face. Meineck, the 2012 Lorenz Eitner guest lecturer and professor of Classics and Theater at NYU, first asked the audience to guess which emotional state he was attempting to portray. He then began to act out various emotions with body movements. Without fail, the audience correctly guessed one emotion after the other – anger, frustration – all without seeing his face. During his talk entitled “The Embodied Theatre: Cognitive Science and Ancient Greek Drama” Meineck outlined how recent advances in the cognitive sciences, such as eye-tracing and face recognition, may provide news tools for understanding the experience of ancient performance. The human mind is programmed to see faces everywhere, Meineck explained, whether it's their grandmother on a potato or 'Jesus in a tortilla.' Yet ancient Greek drama, he noted, is known for its use of masks to cover up the faces of the actors on stage. In his latest research, Meineck, who has made a career of performing and studying Greek theatre, is investigating why playwrights of the past chose to hide their actors behind masks. There must have been something about a mask, Meineck posits, that was attractive to an ancient Greek audience. Masks have a magnetic effect even on audiences today. If someone is wearing or holding a mask, he points out, “you can't take your eyes off of [it].” He sees this happen, for instance, when he takes a theater class to Washington Square: 'stand around, nobody notices you; put on a mask, you instantly get an audience.'

Using modern science to understand the ancient brain

The goal of Meineck's project, which is admittedly still in the beginning phases, is to investigate how modern research in neuroscience and cognition may help us to better understand aspects of ancient drama, such as the use of masks or the outdoor setting of the Greek theater. Greek theatrical performances took place outside, usually in stunning physical surroundings. Putting on a play in such a setting, Meineck alleges, produces a “very different cognitive dynamic.” Models of visuality advanced by neuroscience, he proposes, can provide us a start “to understand the impact of what it was like to watch an ancient play.” There are “major difference(s) between the original audience and us watching today,” he asserts, but neuroscience may provide parallels that connect the two. Recent studies on the brain activity of ballerinas and martial arts experts, for example, show that when watching familiar moves and technique, brains react as if the person were performing the actions themselves. Ancient Greeks, Meineck argues, would have a very similar experience, since most of the native audience would have learned the types of song and dance performed in the theater from a very early age. By focusing the attention of the audience, the dramatic mask, Meineck hypothesizes, enabled ancient theatergoers to relate to the music, narrative, and movement of the actors in a deeply personal way. “There's a cognitive turn around 500 BC,” Meineck claims, “(where) we can see these thoughts (concerning cognition) arise in ancient art and literature.” The potency of masks to focus attention, as seen even on Greek vase painting from the 5th century BC, was being recognized and harnessed in platforms such as the dramatic stage. “Science has proven we prefer characters, schema, facsimiles,” Meineck maintains, and masks provide this very type of “ambiguous expression capable of change.” Meineck contends that, though separated by vast differences in time and culture, with the help of cognitive studies and neuroscience “we can get closer to knowing the ancient brain.” The Lorenz Eitner Lectures on Classical Art and Culture publicize classics and classical scholarship to a wider public. The series has been endowed by Peter and Lindsay Joost, great friends and benefactors of Stanford Classics, in honor of the late Lorenz Eitner, director of Stanford’s art museum, now known as the Cantor Center, in the 1960s-80s.