Involuntary mimicry, psychiatry and theatre

My colleague at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Tiffany Watt-Smith, has written an interesting blog post on the history of involuntary  mimicry. She writes:

For Victorian men of science, mimicry was frequently regarded as deviant and pathological: among the “feeble- minded”, women and “the lower races, a tendency to imitation is a very constant peculiarity,” wrote George J Romanes in 1883.

However, by the beginning of the 20th century, involuntary copying was increasingly understood to be a key psychological mechanism, responsible for learning, socialisation, empathy and even morality. Since the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ in 1994, the idea that our bodies helplessly echo each other now extends to the operations of the brain itself, sparking vigorous debates in neuroscience and beyond about a new era of human interconnectedness. An enduring problem associated with the idea that we are, to quote the psychologist James Sully, mere “copying machines” is the unsettling connection between mimicry and theatricality.

Charcot's theatre

My current research charts the collision of theatre and medicine in the cultural history of involuntary mimicry. Theatre appears as a leading metaphor in scientific writing on motor mimicry from the 1850s onwards. Moreover, in filmic and literary treatments of the phenomenon, alarming involuntary copying is also often entangled with theatre and its vicissitudes. In H G Wells’s short tale ‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’ (1894), for example, the hero cannot help replicating the histrionic attitudes he witnesses nightly in the theatre. In an “infection of sympathetic imitation”, he is forced to perform “agonising yelps, lip- gnawings, glaring horrors” and so on, leaving him with the alarming feeling of being “obliterated”. While for Wells imitation festers in the auditorium, the protagonist of Woody Allen’s 1983 film Zelig, a man compelled to transform his appearance to replicate whichever person or object is closest to him, becomes a theatrical attraction (before becoming demonised amid a national panic about infiltration).

Her research reminds me of the work of Oliver Sacks, and the case he describes in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat of Shane, who has Tourettes Syndrome, and who suffers from echolalia (compulsive echoing of others’ words) and corporalalia (compulsive copying of other’s physical actions). Here’s a clip of it – fascinating how they go to look at a painting of Charcot’s ‘consulting theatre’ (shown above), where the mad would be observed by the sane, and Shane reflects on himself as an object of others’  curiosity and study…

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