A Circus Hires A Neuroscientist To Unlock The Mystery Of ‘Awe’

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Cirque aerialist in water works Tomas Muscionico

Cirque Du Soleil (CDS) is the largest theatrical production in the world. It’s also arguably the most successful live show at evoking feelings of ‘awe’ in audiences. The circus is an impressive confluence of athletic arts, set design, lighting, costumes, makeup and music. “We’ve been called creators of awe for years,” says Kristina Heney, Chief Marketing and Experience Officer at CDS. The response Heney and her colleagues get about the show is a lot of “wow,” “oh my god” and “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Spectators are sometimes moved to tears when describing how much the show means to them “but they still aren’t able to really explain to us the deeper emotional connection that they feel,” says Heney. To get a better understanding of the relationship between awe and CDS, the company hired neuroscientist Beau Lotto and his team at Lab of Misfits to conduct a behavioral neuroscience study.

The study

The study spanned 10 shows over five consecutive nights. The psycho-behavioral analysis involved 282 participants. Subjects were cued to answer questions throughout the performance about when they felt things like awe, wonder and focus. Participants also took psychological tests before and after the show. The tests are designed to assess parameters like subjects’ need for control and whether their concept of self becomes more connected and identified with their concept of others. Out of the 282 subjects, 60  also participated in the neuroscience component of the study. Their behavior and self-reporting were measured against electroencephalography (EEG) readings of brain activity gathered by noninvasive EEG caps worn on the subjects’ heads during performances. Together, this provided a picture of how brain activity corresponds to the experience subjects reported.

EEG data was used to build an artificial intelligence (AI) neural network called a ‘Long Short-Term Memory network’ able to learn, process and classify neural activity in order to identify indicators possibly associated with experiences of awe.

We asked, could [AI] predict when people are experiencing awe? In other words, is there a consistency in the neural signature across all these subjects, such that the network could actually be trained to that signature and then predict when presented with a new brain activation and say, ‘ah, they’re experiencing awe here.’” Says Lotto.

The results of viewing a CDS performance

Neural results: Moments before subjects self-reported they were experiencing awe during the performance, their brains showed a decrease in attentional control and memory activity. This down-regulation of the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that can cause you to overthink) was correlated with an increase in the interconnectivity of the default mode network associated with self-reflection. This whole pattern of activity is what Lotto refers to as the neurobehavioral ‘signature of awe.’ Based on this signature, the AI was able to predict when the experience of awe was occurring in the brain.

Psycho-Behavioral results: subjects reported closer identification with others and a decreased need for cognitive control. Cognitive control is your willpower, your brain function that thinks and plans and censors your behavior.  

The psychological test demonstrated subjects’ increased appetite for higher risk.

Is awe universally positive?

Most studies on awe are based on an underlying assumption that the feeling is universally positive. Recent research has called this assumption into question. Awe is defined as a complex emotion combining veneration and wonder or dread, inspired by the sacred, the sublime or authority. Neuroscientist Ori Amir questions whether comparable results could be induced by an impressive military parade and nationalist symbols, where people feel one with those from other groups as long as they’re all part of some bigger group with a powerful authority figure at the helm. “Awe might similarly reduce individualistic perceptions, yet increase the sense of exclusion of others–think fascism,” says Amir.  The rise of Fascist Architecture gained popularity in the early 20th century and was purposely designed to inspire awe in support of a fascist ideology.

Rigorous, independent research is needed

The source of funding for scientific studies in arrangements like these is problematic. When companies hire scientists to conduct studies on their products, there’s a conflict of interest between getting as close as possible to the unbiased truth (the goal of science) and producing results amenable to marketing purposes. Of course, this is most problematic in studies funded by oil companies about climate change and probably less problematic for circuses wanting to know more about how their show delights fans. Note, this study has yet to be submitted for peer-review.

Research on human experience and artistic expression fall into an area of scientific inquiry that struggles for legitimacy. Social sciences have suffered serious setbacks due to the replication crisis. For those of us eager to see social sciences recategorized from “soft science” to “hard science,” we can only hope that CDS, as world leaders in awe creation, will be open to exploratory and independent studies that will further the relationship between art and science and probe the most extraordinary of human experiences. “We’re fortunate that our phone rings often, but shockingly never by a neuroscientist,” Heney laughs. Note to all neuroscientists: call this circus.

Cirque Du Soleil butterflyMatt Beard

A salient fact we don’t need a study to confirm–the experience of seeing Cirque Du Soleil live is awesome:

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