Incognito: Dramaturgical Notes">Incognito: Dramaturgical Notes

Incognito Dramaturgical Notes by Brian Myers

Cognition


All this confirms me in thinking that we’re splinters and mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes.
Virginia Woolf

When a personal computer starts up, you see a screen we conventionally call the desktop. On the desktop you might see folders, and inside the folders are documents. Once in a while something malfunctions. You might try to open a folder but get an error message, or you might open a document and see garbage characters. Malfunctions like these may provoke a recognition that we are not working with actual folders and documents. We have a sudden queasy fear that our work may have been lost somewhere down there in the ones and zeroes. An expert may diagnose the problem using words like file allocation table, master boot record, and disk sectors. While we are willing to posit the existence of such obscure mysteries, the explanation is full of confusing details that don’t fit well with our idea of a file and a folder. At any rate, we can’t do any more work until someone puts things right—until the underlying system is restored and once again maps correctly to our expectations for “folders” and “files.”

Folders and files are illusions. It’s not that they don’t exist, but they are not what they seem to be. The illusion of folder-ness is necessary and helpful. Like a good map it hides details, presenting just enough information to let us operate easily. We simply point and click to perform what is really a complex manipulation of digital information through a variety of hardware and software subsystems. But the map is not the territory.

Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor and cognitive scientist, is well within the main stream of current thought when he proposes that the notion we have of ourselves as coherent rational beings is a useful illusion, much like a computer’s folders and files. Like a computer, the human brain also comprises a variety of complex subsystems. Oliver Sacks tells us, for example, that the brain processes a “continuous but unconscious sensory flow from the movable parts of our bodies (muscles, tendons, joints) by which their position and tone and motion are continually monitored and adjusted, but in a way which is hidden from us because it is automatic and unconscious.” Your brain creates for you an impression of yourself that serves as the user interface for a complex organism.

William James in 1890 distinguished “I” and “me” as components in the sense of self: “I” is a perceiving subject that knows things, and “me” is one of the perceived objects the “I” can know. Over the past few decades scientists have become more aware of how that self-perception manifests in the brain and how it may have evolved as a way of adapting to our environment. Antonio Damasio’s work has shown that emotions arise as complex physiological reactions to stimuli, and that feelings arise when the brain interprets emotions. Arthur Melton’s theory of memory recognizes three distinct memory sub-processes he named encoding, storage, and retrieval. Experiments by Michael Gazzaniga confirm the brain possesses a story-telling function, the interpreter, whose job is to explain events—to construct a model of the environment based on sensory input and memory. Much subsequent work has investigated how the brain constructs from memory an autobiographical sense of self.

Our notion of self is so fundamental to our experience that we take it for the most certain and undeniable reality of all. And as long as the input and output of our neurological processes align reasonably well with the outside world, we take that self-notion for granted. But any of these subsystems may fail, and a failure at any point can produce seemingly bizarre behavior of the sort popularized in books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Some patients fail to recognize one of their own limbs as part of themselves. Some persistently claim to be in places they manifestly are not. Some seem unaware that they are blind or paralyzed. When neuroscience finds causes for such symptoms in organic malfunction, the system of self-awareness we rely on is revealed to be more complex than our conscious experience allows us to perceive. We may have a queasy intuition that our notion of who or what we are dissolves somewhere down in the neurons and corpuscles.

Some of the characters in Incognito are neuroscientists and some are patients. The play is not exactly about the science, but it is imbued with awareness of the questions that neuroscience raises. Some of the characters experience malfunctions. Some cope with malfunctions in others. Most of them, healthy or not, experience mismatched perceptions, finding themselves in conversations with people who simply cannot see the world the same way they do. Some develop a queasy awareness that their own idea of who they are may be less accurate than they have assumed. 

Playwright Nick Payne goes further: his concerns manifest themselves not just in the experience of the characters but also in those of the actors and the audience. Several features of the play challenge us in ways that foreground how we receive and process information. Most prominently, the ordering of scenes doles out information in a way that deliberately complicates the audience’s efforts to connect the pieces into a coherent narrative. Also the actors each take on multiple roles, often switching with startling rapidity as the memories and emotions of a new person suddenly animate the same actor’s body. Doubling parts and skipping from place to place or time to time are standard fare in theater, but in this play those devices closely align with a concern for the fragility of the brain’s ability to interpret facts by constructing a story. The actors themselves are incognito—manufacturing identities and trapped night after night reliving the same memories as though each time were completely new. Payne explains: “the idea is there is no continuous self, so you don’t have a continuum between how and when and who they play. It’s never about a game or experiment, I honestly go in thinking it’s the best way to try and deliver the material.” He names the play’s three acts Encoding, Storing, and Retrieving. The names may direct attention to the audience’s experience as much as the characters’.