On Friday last week, I went to see Complicite‘s performance Encounter at the Barbican Arts Centre in London. But this was no ordinary visit to the theatre. I was there as part of a science experiment organised by Rita Carter, a world-class science writer who has created several well-known books on the mind and the brain.
The Hive Mind Project is a study of what is commonly called “crowd consciousness”. On this evening, Rita was monitoring the brain waves of a group of volunteers in the audience, using simple EEG devices. The specific aim was to see whether our brains tended to react to the play in a more synchronised way when we are in the presence of other audience members. A control group will be watching the recorded play in isolation.
Unlike conventional medical EEG equipment, which has 256 channels of data, mobile EEG devices may have 35 channels or fewer. This particular device has only five sensors, arranged across the forehead, plus two more behind the ears, which are sufficient to characterise the electrical activity of the frontal lobes of the brain. Branded MUSE, it is manufactured by Interaxon, Inc.
The Muse is so comfortable and unobtrusive, it is marketed by Interaxon as an aid to meditation, using a smartphone app.
The idea of group consciousness has been around a long time, usually associated with the mystical idea of telepathic connection. This is something that Rita and I have had many long and heated arguments: she has an unshakeable confidence in the physical sciences, whereas I am equally convinced on metaphysical grounds that there are more things more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in that philosophy. The conventional explanation is that the brain unconsciously picks up cues from other people – their laughter, their breathing, their body language, their bodily odour and pheromones. In this experiment, one of these channels of unconscious communication is blocked out, as it is part of the performance that everyone in the audience is wearing headphones to provide an immersive audio environment (in this case, the Braziliam rainforest). Whatever synchronisation of the group mind remains, in this case, it is not cued by listening to your neighbour’s breathing rate. This experiment is one part of the Hive Mind Project, which is seeking more volunteers. Contact them through their web site if you are interested.
The people behind the project are: Rita Carter, science writer; and Tom Seffert, independent researcher and EEG expert. Aiste Noreikaite was one of the assistants, who fitted my head-mounted monitor.
On the Friday when I attended, the setting up of the experiment was recorded by two AirBnB hosts: still photography by Reka Komoli and videography by Evelyn.
Théâtre de Complicite, or Complicite as the company is now called, has been producing remarkable and innovative works since 1983. Encounter is based on Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming. In 1969, National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre got lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. The encounter changed his life and raises a myriad questions about human consciousness – including group consciousness and the very nature of time and reality. In this one-man show, director Simon McBurney follows McIntyre’s trek into the trackless rainforest, using innovative audio technology to construct a challenging universe of sound.
Some of the things depicted in the performance reminded me very much of my own experiences in the Santo Daime rituals of ayahuasca. The structured bending of time, space, and consciousness is a difficult perspective to get across, especially to an audience embedded in Western materialism, but Simon McBurney did a good job of it.
I believe the performance is sold out, but you can watch it streaming live tonight only (Tuesday, March 1st) on the company’s web site www.complicite.org. I would definitely recommend it!