THEATRE Love power of theatre’s sniff factor

New research by neuroscientists at University College London shows that the thrill of drama can literally make the audience share a heartbeat. Simon Tait reports

People enjoy arts events together, rather than alone at home in front of a screen, because of what Professor Gavin Henderson, principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, likes to call “the sniff factor” – the sharing of exhilaration inspired by performance.

Until now that has been a well-informed theory, but the University of London (UCL), in association with Encore Tickets, has made it a fact. People who enjoy watching a live performance together

“Usually, a group of individuals will each have their own heart rates and rhythms, with little relationship to each other” says Dr Joseph Devlin, head of experimental psychology at UCL. “But during experiences with heightened levels of emotion, people’s heart beats can become synchronised, which in itself is astounding.

“Experiencing the live theatre performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience in the audience members.”

Devlin’s team had monitored the heart-rates and skin response of selected members of the audience at a live performance of the Olivier- winning musical Dreamgirls. They found that even the heart beats of strangers at the show were beating at the same time.

They also found that friends continued to react together during the interval, and that such synchronisation can actually cause people to like each other more.

Theatre visits, the team found, can bring families closer together, or help a date go well. The co-ordination of heartbeats has been linked by the research to team performance, trust, empathy and simply people liking each other. Following on, the unified response experienced at a live performance can help break down social differences and bring people closer. The connection, said Devlin, could reach deeper to the subconscious level.

The study found that almost half of people (46%) enjoy the theatre experience because of the atmosphere that comes with being in the audience, and almost two thirds (59 per cent) of people feel emotionally affected by a live performance.

The research programme is the latest in a series looking at heart rate synchronicity, and previous studies of people watching firewalking – walking barefoot over red-hot coals - synchronised their heartbeats in time with the firewalkers themselves – and the synchronicity increased the more closely the walker and watcher were related.

The UCL research found that participants who knew each other continued to synchronise throughout the interval, while the other members of the audience fell out of sync without the performance to connect them.

“This clearly demonstrates that despite the social group differences, the performance was a strong enough influence to cause physiological synchrony, engaging the audience as a whole” says Devlin.

The new research was led by the UCL’s division of psychological and language sciences ( a title that happily reduces to PaLS) and was conducted by Devlin, Dr Daniel C. Richardson and John Hogan of UCL’s department of experimental psychology and Dr Helen Nuttall  of Lancaster University.

They monitored the heart rates and electro dermal activity of 12 audience members at the live Dreamgirls performance.


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