Student Scholar Symposium Abstracts and Posters

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 11-29-2023

Faculty Advisor(s)

Dr. Jocelyn Buckner


By engaging audiences in a stranger’s story, theatre often depends on emotional contagion and empathetic responses to strike interest and investment in characters and their circumstances. Mirror neuron systems are those highly tied to the activation of empathy. These neurons are brain cells that activate when we perform an action and witness an action being performed. For example, when someone is crying, a subset of neurons that fire when we cry will also fire in response to seeing this action, thus often leading to emotional contagion. With an understanding of cognitive science, we can closely examine the perspective-taking and emotion-prediction processes triggered among audience members watching actors and among actors embodying characters. The more we understand how the brains of actors and audiences function, the more effectively we can tell stories that impact them in significant ways, whether that’s affecting the audience’s socio-political beliefs or pro-social behaviors. In this study, I will summarize the primary cognitive science principles used by theatre researchers and outline how these principles relate to the processes of acting and spectating through a case study on the 2023 Chapman University Production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds directed by Gregg Brevoort. I will also discuss ways this information can continue to be applied to maximize the positive impact of engagement with live theatre. Ultimately, I aim to reveal what our brains can tell us about how we empathize on and off stage.


Presented at the Fall 2023 Student Scholar Symposium at Chapman University.