Without bringing it square and center in his latest work The Neurology of the Soul, a must-see currently at A.R.T., playwright Edward Einhorn thematically relays what Tom Stoppard focused on in his work about neuroscience’s inability to deal with consciousness in The Hard Problem. Indeed, in The Neurology of the Soul Einhorn’s presents a neuroscientist’s search to empirically measure consciousness (love) with brain scans. Einhorn also directs this exceptional play which delivers humor, boundless verve and exciting ideas that on closer inspection are concerning.
Why are neuroscientists, marketers and art gallery owners (representatives of whom Einhorn acquaints us with in the play) assiduously and feverishly working to find the next great “discovery?” The profit motive in all of its sinister, opaque, nullifying effects which bind us to cultural norms that are often destructive to our souls. With an intriguing backdrop linking neuroscience, art, marketing/branding and human relationships, Einhorn raises questions about ethics and justice in his beautifully constructed, dynamic and mind-blowing work.
This is Einhorn’s newest play and it is as trenchant as much of his earlier work, perhaps even more so. For by identifying a loving couple’s relationship in the petri dish of our time, then agitating it with other individuals and circumstances, he explores the hideaway crevasses of the human spirit and soul. And he reveals how ultimately, consciousness and feelings of love are beyond the kin of empiricism (quantifiable, material data production) which science clings to with ferocity and an almost paranoid, discriminatory blindness. His exploration is at once humorous and frightening, if one considers the implications of what the art world, marketing and neuroscientists may intend. Each have their own siren songs which Einhorn gently presents to allow us to form our own conclusions. And even if the results are unsettling and uncertain, indeed the considerations are limitless and fascinating. Above all, his play alerts us to be on guard.
Stephen (a superbly developed performance by Matthew Trumbull) a cognitive neuroscientist, works for a university as a researcher. He is obsessed with attempting to chart consciousness, specifically the emotions of love. He is using brain scans (fMRI) to do so. That he employs his wife Amy (Ashley Griffin is equally brilliant in the give and take with Trumbull) as his research subject to gauge her reactions and brain responses to his expressions of love, appears sweet. On deeper inspection, Matthew’s Stephen remains removed and aloof as a researcher in the lab. And hearing his “matter-of-fact” atonal love expressions is humorous. It is antithetical to any expression of emotional love and desire which might arise during the normal course of two people interacting in a more intimate setting. (How Einhorn evolves this character and shepherds Trumbull’s adroit, incisive acting skills to bring him to surprising emotionalism is fabulous! Bravo to both!)
Amy, a “failed” artist who signs on for the experiment, for she, too, wants to see how “love” lights up her brain, at the outset appears to be the more sensitive of the two. As Stephen gauges her responses, Amy speaks her feelings and thoughts to the audience and engages us as her confidante. She remains the impassive subject on a research table. We and Stephen can view her on a television screen and Stephen charts her brain responses. Nevertheless, she is two people: the interior and the exterior. For during the scene, when Stephen speaks love phrases to her, Amy’s interior feelings (which she relates to us) and thoughts are very active. Indeed, they are not about him or her love for him, but about the process of being “a subject.”
Einhorn’s having Amy speak to the audience is intriguing. Is this foreshadowing how from the outset, the scientific mapping is not only primitive, but is most probably heading in the direction of a complete disconnect? Einhorn surreptitiously sneaks in through Amy’s address/aside to the the audience (a dramatic technique with more than a typically Shakespearean purpose) that the human being is not a machine easily measurable. Nor is a human being easily controllable, manipulated, or understood. Her thoughts are unseen to Stephen, but revealed to us as she flashes back to a time when she modeled nude for art classes. This “disconnect,” is at the crux of the play and provides the action that propels it to the climax (when Amy and Stephen “scream” in recognition of their hurt and what they fear they have lost).
Increasingly, during Stephen’s experimentation of charting love, his love relationship with Amy is impacted. The observation of their love strangely changes it, recalling to mind the “observer effect” in Physics; the observation of a situation or phenomenon impacts and changes it.
Immediately, in the next segment Einhorn introduces Mark, the head of a neuromarketing firm who speaks before a “Digital Leadership Convention.” As Mark, Mick O’Brien is frighteningly believable as the narcissist with an overweening ego convinced of his own perfection and the justice of brainwashing people whom he uses for his own agenda. With clips of older TV advertisements, Mark convinces us how facile it is to manipulate consumers to buy product. Mark brilliantly persuades his audience (us) in the direction of using the expertise of his neuromarketing firm for whatever purpose, for example, selling product or something else. As Mark’s selling segments alternate with the research sessions between Amy and Stephen, the inevitable happens. Mark eventually hires Stephen for a lot of money to conduct research for his firm with the quid pro quo that Stephen can continue his research with Amy.
The delicious irony that Einhorn reveals with Mark’s characterization is that Mark “believes” that by employing visual and aural propaganda and brainwashing techniques, consumers are completely pliable and suggestive. That this is a “belief” or “theory” and not a 100% proven fact is lost on him. There is no uncertainty with him. He is convinced of the reality he creates to lure his listeners (Amy, Stephen, us) and himself.
Though Amy does not trust him initially, Stephen and she relocate to an apartment in New York City. Mark persuades Amy to use her brain scans to create art which will be shown in a gallery he co-owns with his former wife Claire (a fine performance by Yvonne Roen as the congenial art dealer who ameliorates Amy’s misgivings and suspicions about Mark). Altruism doesn’t play into Mark’s “concern” for Amy’s talent or artistry. He convinces her she is lucky meeting him and that his is an opportunity she shouldn’t refuse. When she doesn’t, of course, he profits from the exhibition of her work and insinuates himself into her relationship with Stephen. Additionally, her art and herself become a commodity to be branded and marketed. Amy and her art are objectified, but the price for this process of bringing her brain scans (soul?) into art is worth it she believes. The irony is duly noted and we are reminded that promoters and marketers control how art and people rise and fall as trending commodities.
The inevitable affair does not occur between Mark and Amy; though how this doesn’t occur is as complicated and uncertain as the wind. Stephen in the process of measuring Amy’s scans convinces himself that he sees in her scans a diminishing love response. And this he interprets to mean that she is falling out of love with him. Ultimately, there is a separation of living arrangements. With all this scientific measuring, belief, assumption, and second guesses encroach. It is a great irony of this play that the characters reveal how unobjective and unscientific they are in typical human fashion.
Despite the persuasive talents of Mark who is convinced of his own invincibility, Amy’s love is for one man only. Once more our faith is restored in what is unknowable, unscientific and spiritual (love). Amy’s art does receive an uplift; about that, as Claire suggested, Mark’s invincibility appears to be correct.
The Neurology of the Soul startles, thrills and absolutely shimmers with light. The themes Einhorn suggests are heady and profound. To what extent must we question the ethics about neuroscientific information in the employ of unscrupulous “neuromarketers” like representative Mark? If science captivates human beings’ unconscious proclivities with the intention of handing over the data to corporate entities who will then use it to brainwash social groups to consume their products, shouldn’t this be regulated? What if such data is turned over to digital companies to manipulate individuals to vote a certain way or support a certain political group over others? Isn’t this injudicious? Undemocratic? Should scientific ethics be left to scientists to self-regulate or independent panels of retired scientists? How do scientists regulate themselves to prevent abuses?
Science removed from philosophy and ethics and morality because those are quaint historic notions is a dangerous “science”. Such science is akin to its own philosophy and belief system which then could be used to justify anything. Without moral and ethical considerations, primitive neuroscience is still in its infancy. But what happens if certain emotions and consciousnesses can be mapped? As for now, the mind is unknown. Consciousness is a “hard problem.” And emotions like love, as Einhorn shows by the conclusion of his play, are beyond measure.
Einhorn’s The Neurology of the Soul is incredibly prescient and current. Think of social media’s use of memes, tropes, visuals and hot button rhetoric pegged to unconscious impulses to manipulate with disastrous results, especially when social groups are being targeted. Regulation is an imperative. But what happens when corporates and other leading social actors resist regulation for their own ends?
All of these themes and many more Einhorn sweepingly covers in this incredible and memorable work, made more exceptional with the production team’s artistry. All these listed are well shepherded by Einhorn’s direction. Kudos to Jim Boutin (Set Designer); Magnus Pind Bjerre (Video Designer); Ramona Ponce (Costume Designer); Jeff Nash (Lighting Designer); Sadah Espii Proctor (Sound Designer); Tiffany Lee (Asst. Video); Eric Mueller (Neurosales Logo) and all who contributed their efforts.
The Neurology of the Soul runs with no intermission until 2nd of March at A.R.T. (53rd between 10th and 11th). For tickets to this amazing production go to the website: Click Here.