The Genes for Empathy and Memory

Two recent breakthroughs in neuroscience seemed worth reporting in the context of our work in theatre:

1. The over expression of a single gene, NR2B, caused a rat to remember things three times longer than her kin.
2. Individuals with a greater expression of a gene that regulates oxytocin score 22.7 higher on tasks that measure empathy.

Empathy and Memory: two qualities of personality central to the work we do in theatre, both linked in part to the expression of single genes, both now capable of being altered in our quest for self-improvement.

Of all the significant challenges facing theatre over the next 50 years, this is the one of the most interesting: if our capacity for empathy and memory are genetically enhanced past a certain line, will we need theatre as a cultural carrier of meaning and agent of empathy? If yes, will a new kind of enhanced theatre replace what we currently believe are masterworks of enduring beauty, reducing Shakespeare’s work to drawings on cave walls?

And even if that kind of cognitive evolution doesn’t happen, the moral questions regarding neuroscience need to be played out in the arena of theatre, or we will be like the playwrights of Universal Robots, handed a discovery with moral implications past our readiness.

On another note, are there plays that you’ve seen lately that are breakthroughs in our understanding of empathy and memory? They don’t need to necessarily be directly about them, but find new ground for how we think about them. I’d like to believe that Rattlers and Pretty Theft both explored new territories of empathy: for Rattlers, how grief distorts our capacity for empathy; for Pretty Theft, how beauty does the same. And I think that The Lesser Seductions of History explores how we remember, both as individuals endlessly revising our lives, and as a culture, rewriting the meaning of the past to suit our present (in this regard, it is directly connected to Our Town and Universal Robots, two plays mentioned as kin that do the same).

One case that might be too metaphoric to make is that theatre is as much a laboratory of human behavior as the sciences, and as such, deserves funding for research that may lead to both dead ends and breakthroughs. But for that to be true, we would need to have some actual breakthroughs in how our theatre explores human consciousness – what have you seen that’s breaking this kind of new ground?

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