Neuroscience for the Arts

Today’s guest blog post is written by Jordan Simmons, Senior Account Executive, PatronManager. 

The Washington Post recently published a beautiful interactive piece about why humans respond so powerfully to the performing arts, which I highly recommend checking out. The authors interviewed several practitioners of a new field of study known as “Neuroaesthetics”: neuroscientists that are looking to uncover the reasons that in an age that offers us streaming everything directly to our living rooms, we still gather in the dark together to watch other people act out stories.

As the article states, there are many reasons why we shouldn’t enjoy going to see a ballet, concert, or play — we are surrounded by other people who might be disturbing or annoying, we have to leave our comfortable homes, there’s a price to pay for the ticket, and we may find ourselves so moved by the performance that we cry, laugh, or otherwise react in public in a way that in the normal course of things we might find embarrassing.

Despite all of these obstacles, however, our brains are fired up by attending performances in a way, unlike any other experience. Scientists theorize that there are many reasons why, including, (but not limited to!):

  • The fact that humans love to gather in a crowd, and being around others amplifies our own emotions.
  • Our brains are hardwired to respond to movement, and indeed even give us the sensation that we are leaping and soaring alongside a dancer while he or she moves.
  • Storytelling is inherent to the human condition and allows us to learn lessons free from personal risk and expand our consciousness outside the bounds of our own experience.

As an arts administrator, beyond my interest in this piece from a purely theoretical standpoint, I also wondered if there wasn’t something in this data which could be useful to us in bringing new audiences to our venues. For example, people with an interest in sports may also respond to similar stimuli when watching a dance performance — seeing the bodies in motion and having their mirror neuron system triggered. A person who enjoys rock concerts might also like musical theatre— the addition of storytelling to emotionally resonant music might be something that they’d love. There are many ways to approach this, but here are a few examples:

  • Between 1986 and 1994, the Oakland A’s baseball team and the Oakland Ballet company teamed up for a cross-promotional event: several members of the A’s would rehearse and perform with the Ballet for one of the dates of their Nutcracker. Both organizations benefitted from the arrangement — the A’s generated goodwill in the community and gathered attention for the team in the offseason, and of course, the performance featuring the baseball players always sold out and brought in significant donations to the Oakland Ballet. This type of partnership also obviously brought in audience members that might not otherwise have gone to the Ballet, and possibly capitalized on that response to the movement they enjoyed at a baseball game.
  • Many professional and amateur football players cross-train with dancers to increase their flexibility, finesse, speed, and balance. If there is a football (or other sports) team in your community, bringing them to your venue for a class may be an interesting marketing opportunity.
  • Partnering with religious organizations may be a way to connect to new audiences — it’s not a huge leap from sitting with a congregation listening to sacred music to sitting in a concert hall listening to orchestral music! Perhaps sponsoring small concerts in church and synagogue spaces or offering discounted tickets to parishioners is a way to encourage them to visit your venue.
  • Programming may encourage you to think outside the box when it comes to advertising: marketing to soccer fans if you are producing “The Wolves,” baseball fans if you are putting up “Damn Yankees” or “Take Me Out.” One extraordinary example of this is at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre — their city is crazy for their football team, The Steelers, and so they regularly commission and produce plays based on the team’s history and players. (Examples include The Play and The Chief.) Engaging with a topic that interests them, football fans may hook into the storytelling that the actors engage in and return to the theater for a non-sports themed show.

As people in the arts, we all know that there is magic in these spaces where art happens. That the act of gathering together to witness a performance can elevate and transform in a way that no streaming service can match. However, it’s still nice to have our intuition confirmed by scientists! Understanding the neurological “why” of art appreciation may give us new and better ideas for reaching out to audiences and better strategies for bringing them into our halls and theatres.


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