My encounter with The Encounter

Marcus du Sautoy has worked with Complicite for several years, and played an important role in the development of The Encounter. 

In 2010, I got a phone call out of the blue from Simon McBurney. “I wonder if you’d be interested in a new project I’m doing. It’s exploring the idea of consciousness.” Had our brains got strangely entangled? The weird thing was that just as my phone rang I was about to stick my head in an fMRI scanner on a mission to try to understand what it is about the brain’s network that contributes to us having a conscious existence. And what changes in the brain that causes consciousness to get switched off when we are in deep stage 4 sleep. So the science of consciousness was very much on my mind.

Simon and I had previously worked together on A Disappearing Number, Complicite’s play exploring the mathematical collaboration between Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy. I am a professor of mathematics so this was very much my home territory. But theatre too has always been an important part of my world. As a student in the 1980s I used to spend hours working at the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford’s local community theatre, and it was here that I first encountered Complicite, known then as Théâtre de Complicité. Pegasus Theatre had a philosophy of encouraging visiting theatre companies to do a weekend of workshops for the community. And so I had the privilege of getting a look under the bonnet of how Complicite devised their shows based on the ideas that they’d learnt with Le Coq.

My first passion has always been mathematics but I must admit that during my early years as I wrestled with my postgraduate research, when things were going badly I would often fantasise about running away with a theatre company like Complicite. The number of times that I downloaded the application form to Le Coq only for a mathematical breakthrough in my research to stop me from putting the completed form in the post.

Eventually my research flourished and my mathematical career took off and I forgot about my thespian aspirations. But then I got an email in 2006: “I’m not sure whether you know of Complicite’s work but we are about to embark on a new piece of theatre about mathematics.” I think Complicite have kept my totally over-the-top fanboy response. This was like catnip to someone who had idolised the work Complicite had continued to create over the intervening decades. The workshops I ended up doing for the company exploring the mathematics created by the Indian mathematician Ramanujan would eventually form the basis for Complicite’s award winning show A Disappearing Number first staged in 2007.

Then in 2008 I took on a new Professorship in addition to my mathematical one: the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. As part of my mission I have been venturing outside my comfort zone of mathematics and exploring some of the questions of science that are at the very edge of our knowledge, questions that might even be beyond our ability to know. This expedition culminated in the publication of my recent book What We Cannot Know.

One of the big unknowns that many philosophers and scientists believe might be unknowable is the Hard Problem of Consciousness. How does the collection of electrons, protons and neutrons that make up the stuff inside your head give rise to a sense of self, a sense of consciousness? And given that I am trapped inside my own consciousness, is there any way that I can access someone else’s consciousness to know that it is anything like mine? Or even know that the other person is truly conscious and not in fact a zombie doing a very good impression of a conscious being but with no internal world.

Simon’s strategy for making theatre is to fill the rehearsal room with interesting people and to spend the day exploring the ideas that will inform the creation of Complicite’s theatrical adventure. I brought into the rehearsal room some of the extraordinary stories that I’d gathered on my own journey to understand the science of consciousness. For example our brain receives much more sensory data than it can cope with so how does the brain decide what to elevate into our conscious mind? Armed with an A4 piece of paper I explained to the team the wonderful “hole in the hand illusion”.

Take a piece of A4 paper and role it up into a cylinder to make a telescope. Bring the telescope up to your right eye but keep your left eye open and place your left hand open at a slight distance from your left eye. As you look down the telescope you seem to have a hole in your hand!

The brain is trying to process two lots of information that seem to be inconsistent with experience. So what it throws into your conscious brain is a fusion of what it thinks you will be interested in. So you are seeing part of your hand from the visual information entering your left eye but the small circle at the centre of the telescope from your right eye. Superimposed it appears that you have a hole in your hand. How the brain decides what to make your consciousness aware of could help us to understand more about consciousness itself. It is also at the heart of how theatre can manipulate your conscious experience of the world.

Simon’s catalyst for this journey into consciousness was the book Amazon Beaming. When I started reading this true account of a National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre, getting lost in the Amazon and being picked up by the elusive Mayoruna tribe I couldn’t see the connection with consciousness. But it is when Macintyre and the head of the tribe, Barnacle, start communicating that I understood the link. They share no language but McIntyre describes the sensation of “beaming” where thoughts from Barnacle appear in his head. It is as if the two minds have found a way to enter the conscious world of the other.

McInytre was a man of scientific persuasion and was sceptical of ideas of telepathy and yet when they eventually met up with a tribe member who did speak Portuguese it transpired that Barnacle had indeed been trying to communicate with McInytre.

It sounds a completely unscientific and hokey idea and yet the work that I was exploring when Simon phoned me six years ago gives us the first inkling of why a fused network might achieve a combined consciousness. Analysing the network of an awake conscious brain compared with the network behaviour of a sleeping unconscious brain, neuroscientist Guilio Tononi has come up with a mathematical measure of how conscious a network might be. But this mathematical measure can be applied not just to the network of a single brain but to a computer network, to the combined network of two brains, the collective network of an audience watching theatre, to the network of life in the Amazon or the Internet.

The idea of a shared consciousness is of course central to the act of theatre. We all come together and share in conjuring up and losing ourselves in a common story. What Complicite has done in The Encounter is to accentuate that sense of the actor penetrating your consciousness by the extraordinary use of headphones. Using the technology of a binaural microphone Simon manages to beam his thoughts deep into your conscious mind.

One of the other major themes in Amazon Beaming is the nature of time. The Mayoruna are trying to stem the devastating advance of the modern world on their Amazonian environment by going “back to the beginning”. In our explorations over the six years of development of The Encounter, I explained the extraordinary revelations we have had about time since Einstein revealed time is not absolute. Time is one of the other edges of knowledge that I have been exploring for my new book. Can we know what happened before the Big Bang? Is that a no go area? Or was there no time before so it makes no sense to talk of before? After all what’s north of the north pole? Did time begin at the Big Bang?

Einstein’s theory of time allows for strange models of time which are not a simple straight line stretching infinitely into the distance but can loop round in a circle. Could it be possible to go back to the beginning? New revelations about an accelerating expanding universe mean that time will come to an end when we hit the heat death of the universe. And yet my colleague in Oxford Roger Penrose has seen in this bleak future an opportunity for the beginning of a new cycle of time. Is time as fundamental a concept as we think, or could it too, like consciousness, be an emergent phenomenon, a process where something new appears from the interactions of smaller entities?

I have spent the last few years wrestling with ideas of consciousness and time for my new book called What We Cannot Know. The time I have spent discussing these ideas with the artistic team at the heart of Complicite’s The Encounter has helped me in my own journey to understand these unknowns. An important example of how sharing the journey can help both the scientist and the artist.

For six years we batted these big themes around the rehearsal room, getting lost in the Complicite jungle, until finally The Encounter emerged as a theatrical phenomenon. For me probably the most exciting moment in this journey was sitting in the audience on opening night and hearing my voice on stage as Simon re-creates one of the many conversations we had over the last few years about time and consciousness. I suddenly realised that I’d achieved my dream to run away with the theatre company that I’d fallen in love with as a student in Oxford.

Marcus du Sautoy FRS is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. He is the author of What We Cannot Know.