Neuroscience gets behind the mask of Greek theatre

Over 2000 years may have elapsed since masked Greek tragedies had their heyday on stage in Athens, but some of the most modern neuroscience may be able to give classicists a better understanding of how the ancients watched and thought about those plays that today exist only on paper.

Peter Meineck leads a double life, as a classicist at New York University and a theatre director and founder of the Aquila Theatre in New York. His interest and involvement in live theatre led him to wonder if he could somehow find a window into the minds of the ancient Greeks who watched plays like Antigone and the Oresteia unfold live on stage rather than the page.

Although the text of a play is undoubtedly important, Meineck says, classicists tend to rely too heavily on the words as first and last authority. At a talk at Stanford University in California last week, Meineck discussed his radical shift away from the text of ancient plays towards understanding the importance of masks and movements by teaming his theatrical knowledge with cognitive neuroscience.

Meineck spent a year studying principles of cognitive science and was immediately attracted to the theory of embodied cognition – the idea that the way we think is mediated by how we physically experience and move in the world – since it aligned so perfectly with his own experience as a theatre director. One of his actors could be reciting perfect Shakespeare, he says, but it would be his body that made the words believable. “I’m trying to get someone’s body to feel truthfully what is coming out of their mouth,” he explains.

The principles of embodied cognition were all the more important in Greek plays, says Meineck, because the actors were masked. Meineck studied the design of the Theatre of Dionysus, embedded in the southern slope of the Acropolis in Athens. From the theatre is an exceptionally beautiful view of the sky and city. The draw of the horizon in the periphery of the audience’s visual field diverted attention from the performance. The actors needed some kind of tool to draw the audience’s attention. Enter the mask.

At first glance, the theatre mask makes almost no sense in the context of ancient theatre. Evidence from eye-tracking studies shows how readily we search for eyes and a mouth in just about any context, from the head of a human to shadows in a piece of toast. Faces are the most important tools we have in communicating emotion. Intuitively, “wearing a mask is the worst thing you can do in that art form”, Meineck says.

But looking closer at the masks, Meineck started to piece together what made them so powerful. A static mask can readily communicate only the six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. But an ambiguous mask, which is what was used in most performances of tragedy, can be shockingly versatile – and more engaging for the audience.

Meineck donned a mask to demonstrate the point. After strapping the ambiguous female mask to his face with his back turned to the audience, he slowly turned around to reveal a neutral but vaguely offputting expression. Audience members shouted out emotions for him to act out. “Fear!” was the first suggestion, and Meineck shrank back, cowering and waving his arms in terror. Almost magically, the face did indeed seem to transform into a terrified expression. At “Surprise!” Meineck jumped up in the air and shook his head. The transformations were equally striking for “joy”, “sadness” and “satisfaction”, though Meineck was understandably stumped by the final suggestion, “repentance”.


The magic of the mask lies in how it transmutes depending on the angle and context in which we see it. Tilting a mask up and down can change its expression from enraged to content, while a human face is far more consistent from all angles. Because there is no face to tell you explicitly the emotion the character is feeling, your brain takes cues from movement and assigns the face an expression that makes sense. “Your cognitive system is seeing and suggesting the mask moving,” Meineck says.

The mask is a hypnotic call to theatre precisely because each audience member helps to create the emotional drama unfolding on stage. “I believe the mask is far more expressive than the human face,” Meineck says. Rather than being told what to see by an actor’s face, the audience plays a role in creating the emotion, projecting onto the mask what should be there rather than what is explicitly present, similar to the way the brain works to find meaning in abstract art.


The shape of the mask’s features may also provide clues into how the ancient Athenians thought about the world, says Meineck. Comparing Greek masks to east Asian ones from the same period, the Greek masks have enormous eyes and mouths with fairly petite noses. The Asian masks are the opposite, sporting a substantial schnozz. Meineck immediately saw the parallels in modern eye-tracking experiments, such as those where subjects look at paintings of fish in an aquarium. People from western cultures were able to accurately describe the individual fish in the foreground after looking at the image, while Asians were superior at describing the context of the entire scene. The prominent noses on Asian masks indicated to Meineck a culture that looks at the centre of an image and takes in the entire field, while Greek masks are closer to modern western culture, focusing on individual details instead of the larger context. The differently shaped masks could be a hint that Greeks had a more individually focused mindset on the world, as opposed to the collaborative cultural perspective commonly associated with Asian cultures.

Though there is a danger that modern investigations into ancient theatre might project conclusions onto the plays in the same way that Athenian theatregoers may have overlaid emotions on ambiguous masks, Meineck’s approach raises interesting questions. What else can we learn about the psychology of the past by teaming up current cognitive science research with expert knowledge of history and the arts?


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