“I love you,” Stephen says to his wife Amy.
“I love you,” Amy replies.
“Please don’t respond verbally,” Stephen admonishes her. He is a cognitive neuroscientist conducting an experiment. He has hooked up his wife to an MRI machine, and is looking at pictures of her brain as he whispers sweet nothings into her ear via a microphone outside the machine. Stephen is researching love’s precise effect on the brain. In this smart and stimulating new play written and directed by Edward Einhorn, Stephen makes an unwelcome discovery, while the show delivers some fascinating and perhaps unwelcome information to the audience: A wife’s love for her husband, for example, looks about the same on a brain scan as her love for French fries.
This is the third play I’ve seen in the past three months to dramatize the scientific study of the brain, and the implications of this pioneering field on ethics, emotions and an individual’s self of sense. Einhorn’s “The Neurology of the Soul” offers more specific science than Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem and more art (and plot and clarity) than Transforma’s The Female Role Model Project. It is also the only of the three to be reviewed in Scientific American….by a professor of neurology….who gave it a rave, finding impressive how the play addresses “many different interesting neuroscience questions.” (It’s worth noting that the professor, Stephen L. Macknik , also spoke at a talk-back after the show.)
If Einhorn has given his play a title that might prove a tad off-putting to anybody but neurologists who read Scientific American, the playwright has fashioned an accessible plot that is more or less a love triangle, which allows him to weave in neurological observations about his trio of central concerns – love, art and marketing.
Stephen (Matthew Trumble), who’s a college professor, is offered a job by Mark (Mick O’Brien), who heads a “neuromarketing” firm – a marketing company that uses research into the brain to try to help his clients sell their products. Mark takes an interest in Amy’s career (and Amy?) after seeing a painting by Amy hanging in the couple’s home, entitled “Capturing the Soul. Failed Attempt Number 29.” Amy (Ashley Griffin) gave up making art long ago, but Mark promises to sell any new artwork that she creates, with the aid of his ex-wife Claire (Yvonne Roen), who owns an art gallery in Chelsea. Reigniting her interest in her career, Amy decides to make art out of her brain scans that Stephen has been creating as part of his research. (Examples of her art work through the magic of Magnus Pind Bjerre’s videos and Jim Boutin’s colorful set design.) Stephen grows suspicious, and jealous, and outraged – especially when he notices a change in her brain scans.
It would make sense for Mark to be trying to seduce Amy; his whole job revolves around the science of seduction. Witness the commercials interspersed throughout the play of babies and puppies that are employed to sell insurance and car ties. As Mark points out, it’s hard to see any connection between babies and tires — the aim is to have the baby provoke emotions that are then associated with those radials.
The character of Mark serves a dual function in the play. He kicks off the plot, but also –both in speeches before a Digital Leadership Summit, and in conversations with Amy — he clarifies, simplifies and offers some provocative observations rooted in the field of neuroscience.
Mark on neurology: It is just another word for psychology: “Psychology is just what we called neurology before we realized we could hook up a few electrodes and figure out just what’s going on in there.”
Mark on consciousness: “What is your conscious mind? It is a flea, riding a dog, and believing it is in control of that dog. Neuroimaging has shown that our decisions are made in our subconscious, before we have even registered them. How is that flea spending its time, what is its main occupation, other than just hanging on? It is making up stories, rationalizing the actions of the dog, so that it can believe that everything the dog does makes perfect sense.”
Mark on the meaning of love: “Put simply, the birth of love is the death of objectivity. We want someone to notice our virtues and overlook our flaws. We want unconditional adoration. When someone believes in us, we automatically believe in ourselves. And that confidence leads to actual positive results.”
Mark on how love applies to Coca-Cola: “The same equation is true for brands, as well. They want to be loved. They want someone who notices only their virtues, not their flaws.” That’s why blind taste tests always favor Pepsi. “But when a cola is identified as Coca-Cola, even if it is misidentified, who wins? The brand people love the most.”
There is much more — such as how the buzz of your iPhone causes the same neurological reaction as gazing into the eyes of your lover — that those attending “The Neurology of the Soul” could probably have done without knowing, but which are now stuck in our brains.
Click on any photograph by Richard Termine to see it enlarged
The Neurology of the Soul
Written and directed by Edward Einhorn
Sets by Jim Boutin; video by Magnus Pind Bjerre; costumes by Ramona Ponce; lighting by Jeff Nash; sound by Sadah Espii Proctor
Cast: Mick O’Brien (Mark); Ashley Griffin (Amy); Yvonne Roen (Claire); Matthew Trumble (Stephen)
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
The Neurology of the Soul is on stage through March 2, 2019