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The Affective Sciences and Greek Drama

Peter Meineck

Gorgias, Plato, Aristotle and Isocrates all described Athenian drama as having the ability to “move the soul” – these ancient commentaries on drama were concerned with the affect of mimesis and drama’s emotional power. In this paper I will outline my recent work that approaches ancient drama from the perspective of the affective sciences, particularly neuroscience research concerning human emotional processing and empathy. By using theories of mind-body dissociation, cognitive absorption and the aesthetic processes of the brain’s default mode network I explore what made the performance of fifth century Athenian drama such an emotionally charged and “soul-moving” experience. I will briefly outline my work by making a “cognitive reading” of a short scene from Aeschylus’ Oresteia, describing the emotional expressiveness of the tragic mask which draws on face recognition studies, and eye-tracking research; gesture and movement using theories of cognitive embodiment and kinesthetic empathy; the spatial affect of both the imagined and physical space using Previc’s four realms of 3-dimensional space theory, and the neural processing of lyrics and music.

 I propose that an engagement with the new research emanating from the interrelated fields of the affective sciences (neuroscience, cognitive psychology, spatial research, embodied cognition etc.) can provide classicists and ancient historians with new tools to approach the ancient text and reveal a good deal about how mimetic performance operated in antiquity. 


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Cognitive Classics: New Theoretical Models for Approaching the Ancient World

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