Reading Like Galileo

thelampOver on Novel Readings Rohan has just published a very interesting piece about Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. During the course of her discussion she suggests that the way in which we approach a text may well influence our appreciation of it, pointing out that if you consider certain passages as if they were poetry rather than prose you may end up assessing their quality rather differently.  Her fascinating post took my mind back to a seminar I attended last Saturday at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre about the links between the creative and the scientific minds.

As you probably know Shakespeare and Galileo were born in the same year.  If my maths is right then Galileo was the elder by about two months.  Clearly, both had minds capable of highly original thought, minds that could boldly go where no one had been before.  However, one of the questions that was being posed was whether or not those minds worked in similar ways and as a means of testing this an actor and an astronomer had been asked to undergo tests in an MRI scanner so that images showing the areas of their brains activated at any particular moment could be recorded.

While in the scanner they were each asked to read aloud a previously unseen passage from the new translation of Brecht’s Galileo prepared by Mark Ravenhill for this season’s RSC production of the play. Images of their brain activity were taken as they were doing this.  The results were remarkable in their differences.  While both subjects showed animation in the areas of the brain related to understanding, the actor’s brain in addition was calling on a number of areas not stimulated at all in the case of the astronomer.  The scientist strove to make sense of the words in front of him, the actor both to make sense and to communicate that sense to anyone listening to him.  There was also activity in those area associated with movement as if the player was already beginning to think in terms of where on the stage he might present the speech and how he might use gesture and physical repositioning to forge a bond of shared meaning with the audience.

This won’t surprise anyone who has ever read aloud to an audience, nor for that matter anyone who has ever been part of such an audience, especially if the reading has been uninspired.  It is one thing to understand a text for yourself, but another entirely to communicate not only the meaning but also the emotion behind the words to other people.  Any teacher reading to a class at the end of the day is very quickly made aware of their failings should they manage the first but fall short in respect of the second.  (And believe me, I speak from long years of experience.)

Neither should we be surprised at the links with those areas of the brain associated with physical activity.  I was always aware as a drama student that learning my lines was intimately associated with plotting my moves.  Once I knew where on the stage I stood the lines seemed to come automatically.  It makes sense, then, that someone who makes his living as an actor should begin immediately to consider not just what a speech means but how best it might be presented both in terms of delivering the language and in explicating its meaning through movement and gesture.

This, of course, is all well and good if you are the actor.  The implication is clearly that your brain is working at a far higher level of complexity than that of the astronomer.  And, the actor involved, who was at the seminar, while not gloating about the results was not complaining either.  However, the astronomer was not present.  He is coming to the follow-up session next Saturday.  It will be very interesting to hear his views on the  results. I wonder, for example, if he will consider it a fair test, the text chosen having come from a dramatic source?

Every now and then the RSC pop in fascinating discussions like this and I know how lucky I am to live close enough to be able to attend regularly.  I have a ticket for next week’s seminar and then I’m going to see the play, which has taken excellent reviews, in the afternoon.  I will report back.

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11 thoughts on “Reading Like Galileo

  1. Your comment about reading to a class is so true – I remember flogging John Christopher’s “The Prince In Waiting” with a Year 6 class – to say I struggled to convey the emotion is to put it mildly!

      1. I never did! Alas my classroom teaching days are behind me – alas! However am in schools frequently so if ever asked to read to year 6 I’ll look out for that!

  2. I like the way that brain imaging offers proof of things we suspect, but I feel it can sometimes take too much credit for proving what we may already know on one level! Although as you say, it would be interesting to hear what the astronomer has to say about that! I’m struck by the text they were reading – Brecht’s Galileo was one of my German A level texts and I thought it was brilliant. It’s hardly ever discussed, though, and seems quite a forgotten play by him. Definitely time for a revival.

    1. I know what you mean, Litlove. I don’t think anyone in what was primarily an audience of theatre-goers was the slightest bit surprised by the results. The text was chosen quite specifically because of the chronological links between Shakespeare and Galileo and because the RSC are performing a new translation this season. I saw a production many years ago and it has stayed with me as one of my most vivid theatrical memories so I’m really looking forward to the new version, especially with Ian McDiarmid playing the title role.

  3. What a fascinating seminar and experiment. As you say the astronomers reaction next week will be insightful. As a scientist he/she may well argue that this was a biased test. Maybe the Rsc should flip the scenario and they both read a text with more scientific bent to see if it makes a difference.

    1. Yes, Karen. I know that would be my comment if I were him. To be fair to the actor, he had no idea what the source of the text was and it did contain scientific language, but I still think they should have tried two different texts while they had the technology available.

  4. Sounds like a really interesting seminar and how cool that you live near enough to the Royal Shakespeare Theater that you can attend things like that. It seems a bit of a lopsided comparison between the actor and the astronomer though. Why didn’t they also get a text on astronomy with equations and stuff in it? I think it would be a far more interesting comparison to see the differences and similarities when each was confronted by something in their specialty and something unfamiliar.

    1. I’m sure you’re right, Stefanie. It’s going to be really interesting to hear what the astronomer has to say. Mind you, I have my fingers crossed at the moment because the weather forecast has snow lined up for Saturday. Well, there’s time for that to change between now and then.

  5. Such an interesting post, Alex! I’ve just started studying Shakespeare and performance and for the first time I’m thinking about how actors move into and with their lines. It’s more of a ‘whole body’ process, it seems, than I’d given it credit for.

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