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Letter for an Exchange between Scientists of Cognition

Une Lettre pour un Échange entre Scientifiques de la Cognition

Victor Emmanuel Jacono About the author


This short essay, written from the point of view of a young theatre maker, pedagogue, and scholar, is presented in the spirit of a letter, addressed primarily at theatre artists and scholars to question their role of scientists in the growing exchange between theatre and neurosciences. In particular the essay highlights the importance of science in a theatre tradition based on the actor's pedagogy, and posits such a tradition as an example of research from which theatre makers could engage in a deep exchange between scientists of cognition.

Theatre; Pedagogy; Science; Cognition; Epistemology


Ce court essai, écrit du point de vue d'un jeune performer, pédagogue et chercheur, est présenté dans l'esprit d'une lettre, adressée principalement aux artistes et chercheurs du théâtre, à s'interroger sur leur rôle des scientifiques dans l'échange croissant entre théâtre et neurosciences. En particulier, l'essai met en évidence l'importance de la science dans une tradition théâtrale basée sur la pédagogie de l'acteur et postule une telle tradition comme un exemple de recherche, à partir de laquelle gens du théâtre pourraient s'engager dans un échange profond entre scientifiques de la cognition.

Théâtre; Pédagogie; Science; Cognition; Épistémologie


Este breve ensaio, escrito do ponto de vista de um jovem realizador teatral, pedagogo e estudioso é apresentado com o espírito de uma carta, endereçada fundamentalmente a artistas e estudiosos do teatro para questionar seu papel como cientistas no crescente intercâmbio entre teatro e neurociência. Particularmente, este ensaio destaca a importância da ciência em uma tradição teatral embasada na pedagogia do ator e propõe essa tradição como um exemplo de pesquisa a partir da qual os realizadores teatrais poderiam se engajar em um intercâmbio profundo entre cientistas da cognição.

Teatro; Pedagogia; Ciência; Cognição; Epistemologia

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  • 1
    The essay is an extended version of a paper entitled Le Neuroscienze e la Pedagogia dell'Attore, presented during the 5th International Conference of Dialogues between Theatre and Neuroscience held at the University of Rome "La Sapienza", in June 2013.
  • 2
    In Taviani's lettera, one might recognize the epistemological proximity of Barba's Theatre Anthropology with the thought of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who placed metaphor and the recurrence of pattern at the centre of his epistemology (Bateson; Bateson, 2005). For a comparison between Barba's Theatre Anthropology and Bateson's cybernetic epistemology see Towards a Cybernetic Understanding of "the Performer's Work upon Himself" (Jacono, 2004, unpublished undergraduate dissertation).
  • 3
    To be precise, Sokal and Bricmont's criticism, as indicated in the subtitle of their 1998 publication, targets particular instances of postmodern intellectuals' abuse of science, although it does not seek to dispel the general validity of postmodern thought. Even so, Sokal and Bricmont's book has stirred a lot of controversy on account of it being perceived as an attack on postmodernism as a whole, a matter which however lies beyond the scope of the present discussion.
  • 4
    Indeed, accusations of scientism/reductionism and relativism/mysticism continue to be hurled across the arts-science divide, with some arguing that the exchange between the two fields is impossible due to fundamental epistemological differences. Others, however, have long argued strongly in favour of exchange and mutual influences to counteract the fragmentary image of the human condition brought about by the growth of specialization (Walker, 1964; Bohm; Peat, 1987; Lehrer, 2008).
  • 5
    Even outside the sphere of postmodern criticism, philosophers of science such as Alan F. Chalmers (1999) and Samir Okasha (2002) seem to agree that notwithstanding the social status it enjoys, "{...} science is a heterogeneous activity, encompassing a wide range of different disciplines and theories. It may be that they share some fixed set of features that define what it is to be a science, but {...} a simple criterion for demarcating science from pseudo-science is unlikely to be found" (Okasha, 2002, p. 16-17).
  • 6
    For a discussion on the subjectivity and relationality of scientific enquiry, see the important interdisciplinary publication of physicist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher Isabelle Stengers, La Nuova Alleanza: metamorfosi della scienza (1999)
  • 7
    Although I am aware that pedagogy is a loaded term and that it has been addressed from different sociological perspectives, it is here being strictly defined according to the focus of Cruciani's studies as a process of creative growth which the actor, as an individual human being, undergoes autonomously and scientifically.
  • 8
    See Performer Knowledge and Science (Jacono, 2012), which draws particularly upon the research in performative processes of Jerzy Grotowski (2001), and the neurobiology of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1998) to relate the concept of knowledge with being and action. Increasing importance has been given to the centrality of action to cognition in recent studies in cognitive neuroscience (Rizzolatti; Sinigaglia, 2006; 2010; 2011; Berthoz; Petit, 2008).
  • 9
    Autopoiesis, according to Maturana and Varela, is what truly characterizes living beings: an organization which enables them to continuously produce themselves, i.e. to renew the dynamic structures which they are - a biological theory which reconciles identity and change. Due to such a biological organization, living beings behave as closed systems, in that internal changes may be triggered by external perturbations but are solely determined by internal structures. What enables communication between such operationally closed systems is structural coupling: "The nervous system and the whole organism may be closed, but if they have a plastic structure that changes in the course of the interactions they undergo, then a history of relations may unfold that does not intersect with the internal dynamics of the nervous system or the organism (and vice versa)" (Maturana; Poerksen, 2002, p. 85). A more elaborate discussion of these topics can be found in Relationships, Transmission, Improvisation (Jacono, 2011), and in the unpublished doctoral thesis, Questioning how Knowledge Acts: the relationship between the performer's pedagogy and cognitive neuroscience (Jacono, 2012). The thesis refers especially to the pedagogical principles of Stanislavski and Copeau, and compares the Socratic idea of learning as a form of remembering (in Plato's Meno) to the theories put forward by Grotowski (2001, p. 379) and the Colombian neuroscientist Rodolfo R. Llinás (2002, p. 176).
  • 10
    See Whyman (2008) and Gabriele Sofia's unpublished doctoral thesis, La Relazione Attore-spettatore. Storia, ipotesi e sperimentazioni per lo studio del livello neurobiologico (2011), particularly the first part dedicated to a historical overview of relationships between theatre and the brain sciences.
  • 11
    Cruciani gives an articulated explanation of this phenomenon in a round table conference with Franco Perrelli entitled Attore: c'è qual cosa di sbagliato nelle pedagogie del '900?. The conference was held in Lecce on 3 December, 1986, within the cycle of seminars Paesaggi, Passaggi, Deliri Teatrali del Primo Novecento, organised by Astragali Teatro. An unpublished transcript of the conference by Serena Stifani, revised by Victor Jacono and Clelia Falletti, is kept at the Archives of Astragali Teatro (Lecce). See also Jacono (2012).
  • 12
    Again, some might find exception with Barba's comparison of science with mythology (Sokal; Bricmont, 1998, p. 1). Even so, in my opinion here Barba is not trying to downgrade science. Fully aware of the scepticism with which the community of theatre artists and scholars at large regard the sciences, and of the positive influence that the sciences have nevertheless had upon his own work, to me it appears that he is rather adopting a subtle strategy to bridge the divide, in view of Sofia's important, albeit challenging, contribution to theatre studies.
  • 13
    Definition taken from Oxford Dictionaries online. Available at: <>. Accessed on: 17 feb. 2014.
  • 14
    In this sense, it is interesting to note Albert Einstein's observation that "{...} the scientific way of forming concepts differs from that which we use in our daily life, not basically, but merely in the more precise definition of concepts and conclusions; more painstaking and systematic choice of experimental material; and greater logical economy" (Einstein, 1940, p. 487).
  • 15
    Dr. Chambers' observation is quoted in James Gallagher's BBC News Health review, Brain 'Rejects Negative Thoughts' (09 oct. 2011). Available at: <>. Accessed on: 01 feb. 2014.
  • 16
    The publication was issued by the Centre of Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) of the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
  • 17
    See particularly the collection of papers published in Educational Philosophy and Theory, v. 43, n. 1, 2011.
  • 18
    A case in point, documented by Sofia (2013, p. 83), is illustrated in the discussions which took place between theatre makers and scholars forming part of the EMA-PS project and the neuroscientists Giacomo Rizzolatti and Maria Alessandra Umiltà, during international conferences held in Malta in 2005 and 2006. In order to illustrate the workings of the mirror mechanism, Umiltà and Rizzolatti presented an experiment testing motor activation in the macaque monkey brain as the animal watched an experimenter grasping an object concealed behind a screen. Mirror neuron activity peaked when the experimenter actually grasped the object, but did not peak when the experimenter merely mimed the grasping of an object that was not there. From their knowledge of a trained actor's capacity to convincingly render the dynamics of an action even in mime (i.e. the dynamics of grasping also in the absence of the object being grasped) the theatre researchers could not help speculating that, had the experimenter been a trained actor miming the grasping action, the monkey's mirror neuron activity would probably have peaked even in the absence of the object behind the screen. Not only did the neuroscientists consider the relevance of such an observation but, as noted by Sofia (2013, p. 90), they also started employing trained actors in similar experimental protocols.

Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    Aug 2014


  • Received
    10 Sept 2013
  • Accepted
    21 Jan 2014
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