Science writer Rita Carter, whose book Consciousness played a key role in Complicite's first explorations into The Encounter, talks about an experiment into 'group mind' she's planning, and how it relates to the show.

The Encounter is about a journalist, Loren McIntyre, who gets lost in the Brazilian jungle and finds himself living with a tribe with whom he communicates without words. They seem to tune in to each other as though they are all accessing some kind of cloud-like consciousness. Does this tie in with current scientific understanding?

No. Mainstream scientific opinion holds that that there are plenty of known psychological mechanisms to account for  McIntyre’s  experiences without introducing some mysterious communal consciousness.  

This might be right. Our brains  have some staggeringly powerful tools to help us know what other people are thinking. Mirror neurons, for instance, are brain cells which automatically put us in a similar state of mind to those around us – we don’t have to think about it at all. 

But that’s not to say there aren’t other things at work; things we don’t yet know about. So much about the brain has yet to be discovered but there is very little scientific exploration of non-sensory communication because it’s associated, unfortunately, with weirdo supernatural stuff. Such research as has been done has drawn a blank, but there’s a persuasive argument to say that the sort of thing we are talking about is only likely to emerge in real-life situations, so lab research is unlikely to reveal it. 

How can you get around that?

By taking brain research out of the lab and into the world.  Until now that’s been practically impossible because the technology needed to see how a brain is functioning has been hugely expensive and cumbersome. An fMRI scanner – the machine that produces those images with areas of the brain 'lit up' - will set you back at least half a million pounds and weighs more than ten tons. To get an image the person has to lie rigid inside this machine while it clanks and crashes.  Even EEG, a comparatively lightweight measuring tool,  conventionally involves sticking dozens of electrodes on a person’s scalp and wiring them up to a machine.

Just recently, though, manufacturers have started to produce consumer-friendly equipment so at last it’s becoming possible to look at brains in their natural habitat!  I'm conducting an experiment during some performances of The Encounter [at the Barbican on 24,25 and 26 February 2016] in which we are using lightweight, headband-style EEG monitors, which simply rest on the forehead, pick up the signals from the brain underneath and send the data wirelessly to a computer.  The information allows us to see things like shifts in attention and mood and by monitoring several people together we can see how their brain  activity  compares.

What will this tell you?

For starters we want to see how closely our group’s brain activity synchronises. Do they all become attentive at exactly the same time? Do they get excited  in unison?  You would expect quite a high degree of synchronisation because everyone is watching the same thing – Simon’s performance is like the conductor in an orchestra, keeping everyone together. But we want to see if being together as a group brings about greater synchronisation than you would see if people were watching the same drama but in isolation. In other words, is there some kind of group interaction occurring as well as a response to what is happening on stage?

How can you tell whether what you see is the 'conductor' effect or a group interaction? 

The second part of the experiment will be to take other volunteers and  get them to watch a film of The Encounter, but on their own. This will show the difference between watching something in a live audience and in isolation.  Then we will have to do other comparisons to tease out the difference between seeing a live performance and film.  So it’s going to be a long-term project! We are not expecting to get nice, clean-cut results because the data will be more rich and 'messy' than if it had been acquired in a lab. But the world is messy too, and that’s really what we want to know about.

Obviously the question of whether there is 'something else' going on between people that we don’t yet know about is a big one – if it’s true it might explain a huge amount of human experience. But does it have any practical application?

Whether we discover 'something else' or just learn more about known ways that groups interact, it will be useful in all sorts of ways. Performers, for example, often say that on a good day their audiences become effectively 'one mind', and when they don’t they talk of shows 'falling apart'. So it would be useful for them to know what in particular binds people in an audience, and how to achieve that. People who work in a group could benefit from knowing what binds people so they work towards into a common goal. And it might be helpful to know what stops people getting bound together – cults, 'mindless' crowd behaviour, group bullying and even warfare involve group binding. If you can see its origins in brain activity – which I firmly think you can – then we have to look for it in situations where it is likely to emerge. Being in the audience of  The Encounter – one of the most emotionally-charged experiences I’ve had in the theatre – seems to be a good place to start!

Rita Carter, January 2016


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