A study by the University College London (UCL) has found that people respond “more strongly” to live experiences than a version of the same event on a screen.
After measuring the heart rates and sweat glands of audience members as they watched theatre productions and films, the live experience showed levels changed approximately twice as much as those watching the on-screen version.
Joseph Devlin, professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL, told the Guardian newspaper: “A big part of the live performance is that we are fundamentally a social species. Any time you go to a live performance, whether it’s a concert or a show, people often talk about the energy or the buzz of it. Everyone knows what you’re talking about, but what is it exactly?
“What we have found is that part of it is people’s hearts starting to synchronise within the group, and you feed off the response of the people around you. You hear their emotional responses, their gasps, their claps, their laughs, or their horror, depending on what it is you’re watching. You mirror that in yourself and that amplifies your own personal experience.
“It’s really remarkable but, when you have that shared experience that’s being driven by a particular performance, you start to see people’s heart rates go in and out of synchrony with each other, particularly in more emotionally compelling areas.”
The study looked at people’s responses to Dreamgirls the stage musical and the film adaptation, which Devlin said is “really close to the theatre version, so you’re comparing apples to apples.”
Devlin said they found the variance in heart rates was largest in the theatre audience and lowest in the individuals watching the film. The study also noted that the size of the audience made a difference to the level of emotional responses, with bigger crowds causing increased changes in heart rate and sweating.
Devlin said that he sees the potential for using such technology to shape productions according to what gets heart rates going, adding that it could even be used in political rallies.