Reviews Performance Published 27 October 2013

The Empathy Roadshow

Artsadmin ⋄ 17th October 2013

Mirror neurons and methodology.

Bojana Jankovic

Science has been working on proving empathy as a neurological fact: an event in the brain caused by mirror neurons. Witnessing a person in pain will awake the mirror neurons and cause the observer’s body to mimic the feeling or the reaction; the same seems to be true of positive emotions and experiences.

Humans also learn empathy through observation.  Sarah Woods’ The Empathy Roadshow is concerned with the existence of mirror neurons and the good work they do; the playwright spent six months talking to neuroscientists and hairdressers alike in an attempt to unravel what empathy is, how we recognise it, and what good it does us.

While it’s possible that The Empathy Roadshow aspires to be a performative lecture, it ends up being a less formally conceptual presentation of Woods’ findings on the topic. The performative elements here are inherent in the form, and it’s predominantly the choice of venue, Artsadmin, that signals to the audience that The Empathy Roadshow should be approached as a performance.

As scientific lecture, it’s not likely to pass the methodology test. ‘Expert testimonies’ attempt to give the piece not only context, but legitimacy. They are interspersed by video interviews with the less scientifically minded, who add to the discussion with their opinions of what constitutes empathy and how they experience it. This mishmash of fact and subjective opinion quickly establishes a vicious cycle in which the two elements constantly undermine each other – the science exposes itself as a dry way of defining a feeling which apparently is familiar to everyone, only to then triumphantly announce that the masses are ignorant of the tiny neurons responsible for their humanity. At one point, the expert even confesses that his work on mirror neurons means he no longer considers intuition to be ‘gibber-gabber’: now that science has explained the brain functions that produce it, he is happy to indulge in a bit of gut feeling.

More dangerously, the interviews seem to serve the purpose of confirming the science, induction style. Mirror neurons, and by extension empathy, are all about imitation; put a person in a non-empathic environment, and observe how they stop caring. The evidence is offered in the shape of an interview with a woman now estranged from her once inseparable sister; the sibling’s new partner, a man with ‘no empathy’ is quickly assigned the blame. The argument is not helped by the fact the interviewee seems only too happy, or indeed relieved, to finally have a rational explanation for her sister’s absence; it’s also far too easy to pinpoint just how much of the family narrative the audience is missing.

In putting together bits of qualitative research and scientific theory and letting go of all fiction, verbal, visual or otherwise,  Woods puts herself in a rather precarious position: The Empathy Roadshow can only be believable if she proves herself an authority on the subject. Unfortunately the reasoning behind her assertions quickly starts disintegrating – a process which continues once it turns out mirror neurons have been somewhat contested, at least if Wikipedia is to be trusted.

Maybe it’s these logical shortcomings that prevent the piece from ever actually getting to the point, staying instead an attempt to objectively describe empathy. What’s missing in between all the neuron talk and the testimonials of people confirming they are empathic and not sociopaths, is perhaps a point of view or concretisation – something that would put an end to assuming this is such an important subject and alert us to why it’s so inspirational.


Bojana Jankovic

Bojana Jankovic is one half of There There, a company composed of two eastern European theatre directors who turned from theatre to performance only to repeatedly question their decision. Before shifting to collaborative projects, she worked as a director and dramaturg on both classics and contemporary texts. She also wrote for Teatron, a Belgrade theatre magazine. She has a soft spot for most things pop, is surprisingly good at maths for a thespian, and will get back to learning German any day now.

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