Works of Art Influence Our Minds and Nervous Systems, Stanford Researcher Reveals

New research from Stanford theater historian Matthew Wilson Smith shows how 19and The brain science of the last century has worked its way into the drama of our lives, both on and off stage.


Humanities at Stanford


The research of French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne in the 19th century influenced artists who used new information about brain science to manipulate their audiences. Here, de Boulogne demonstrates the mechanics of facial expression. (Wikipedia)

No two disciplines seem more distant than theater and science, but it turns out that they are intimately linked.

As Stanford professor Matthew W. Smith discovered, modern theater — and, by extension, film and television — owes its life primarily to the scientific study of the nervous system.

An associate professor of German studies and theater and performance studies at Stanford, Smith’s latest research shows how theatrical works converged with scientific research more than 100 years ago.

In his forthcoming book, Theaters of Sensation: 19and The neurosciences of the century and the birth of the modern sceneSmith reveals how the artists leveraged scientific research into human cognitive function to play directly on viewers’ nerves.

“Late Victorian brain science challenged free will as it began to show that humans could be studied, quantified, altered and redirected,” said Smith, a playwright himself. “It captured the artistic imagination across Europe and North America.”

Smith’s investigation led him to an array of sources, including plays, archived production notes from theater managers, acting manuals, and stories of scientific and psychological discoveries. Taken together, the evidence points to an emerging genre that Smith now calls “sensation theatres.”

From the Frankenstein dramas of the Romantic period to the avant-garde experimentations of Antonin Artaud in the early 20th century, the theatrical approaches of this group aim to move, electrify and disturb the public. Such plays set the stage for the horror, action and thriller genres of today’s film. They have also led to the use of the screen to motivate various responses and behaviors in viewers.

“People have always understood that the arts affect our minds and our bodies,” Smith said. “But what really took hold in the 19th century was the idea that works of art have a particular impact on our nervous system – and that we are, by extension, neurophysiological beings. Today, we still say: ‘This film was exciting!’ “This play was thrilling!” “This show was sensational!” ‘This book was stimulating!’ These ways of speaking have their roots in the period of cultural change I am writing about, and one of the products of this cultural change has been the identification of a person I call the “neural subject.”

Television advertising, for example, would be nowhere without the findings of 19and century neuroscience showing how easily the human mind can be programmed by adjusting people’s nervous systems and emotions, Smith said.

More than just a study of theatre, Smith’s research demonstrates the importance of neuroscience to a broader understanding of 19th century culture. His research shows how sensationalism in fiction and journalism has also played – and continues to play – on the idea of ​​the neural subject as highly trauma-prone and therefore manipulable.

“The neuroscience revolution of the 19and anticipated century and helped create the conditions for ours,” he said.

annoying entertainment

Smith, specialist in the links between technology, science and the arts,

said he found “ample evidence showing how playwrights were clearly using what scientists knew about human cognitive functioning to affect audiences”.

Think of the railway rescue scenario depicted in melodramas of the time – the woman tied to the tracks and released seconds before the train overwhelms her. “Such a theatrical trope was grounded in the scientific study of how the nervous system can be shocked,” Smith said. “The Victorians called it a ‘sensation scene’ and even debated whether it and other ‘sensations’ could be considered intellectual property. Can you copyright neural stimulation? ?”

As Smith discovered, it was 19and the “new century scientific conception of the person not primarily as a soul or a spirit, but rather as a host of interacting internal mechanisms, many of which are unconscious”, which influenced playwrights such as Percy Shelley, August Strindberg and Georg Büchner, and other artists such as opera composer Richard Wagner.

“Wagner has been accused of writing not real music, but soundscapes to stimulate the nerves,” Smith said. “In his own theorizing of his work, he indeed writes of art as a method of impacting the viewer’s brain, thus reflecting the scientific ideas that were beginning to infiltrate public thought.”

German playwright and scientist Georg Büchner’s own research into the nascent field of neurology informed his depiction of the protagonist in his game Woyzeck in 1837, too, says Smith. Such a study allowed the playwright to portray a soldier subjected to disturbing medical experiments and psychologically fragmenting as a result. “The character shows signs of what today might be called schizophrenia.”

Büchner’s artistic sensibility was further inspired by scientific literature to arouse audience sensations in new ways by creating scenic effects that direct their attention to light, sound and movement.

It was his fascination for Woyzeck who pitched Smith on this particular book project. “Looking back, I think the interest goes back to my close relationship with my cousin, a visual and theatrical artist, who himself was diagnosed with schizophrenia about 20 years ago,” Smith said.

Grotesque Theater

Smith is also one of the few researchers to take seriously the link between controversial prepsychoanalytic figures such as Franz Mesmer and Jean-Martin Charcot, and less studied but important neurologists such as Matthew Baillie, Johannes Müller and Charles Bell. In this way, he again shows how neuroscience and psychology, which diverged at the beginning of the 20and century, were once united.

In an analysis of Charcot, the man widely regarded as the founder of modern neurology, Smith shows how theater and nervous science have intermingled in extremely dramatic ways.

“In his public lectures in the 1870s and 1880s, Charcot exhibited and commented on a parade of neurological patients with the panache of a born showman,” Smith said.

Using primarily female subjects with psychological problems, Charcot demonstrated how people could be hypnotized into adopting grotesque body postures and being pricked with needles without flinching.

His controversial methods were later castigated, parodied and turned into a shocking new type of entertainment in a form of theater known as Grand Guignol. Some of the pieces were written as critiques of his methods by his own scientific followers, Smith said.

Smith’s work helps put into context the recent explosion of disciplines that rely on brain research, including neuroaesthetics at Stanford, where subjects have had their brains scanned while reading Jane Austen novels. .

As for his perspective, Smith said: “I think there is a danger in reducing a person to an aggregate of neurophysiological processes. Field after field you can see the dangers of an uncritical embrace of the neural subject , and I hope some caution is called for.

“My work is ultimately implicitly political, in that it calls us to more critical reflection on the origins and destinations of neural subject use.”

Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communications: (650) 724-8156,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,

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