Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Column_031 Dress rehearsal

It had been 20 years since I’d been on stage – and there was no dress rehearsal: we went straight from the classroom to the public performance of our tap dance number which, in addition to the coordination of our feet, involved bouncing basketballs, throwing them up in the air, into the aisles and back into our hands in full choreography (the theme of the show was Pan, of course). Following the teacher’s recommendation to arrive an hour early helped with the reconnaissance of the terrain behind the curtains: the dressing rooms, the dark passageway behind the stage, the aisles. But nothing, apart from the dress rehearsal, prepares us for the moment when the curtains open and all the lights and eyes fall on us. Why is it so hard to stay focused at this time?

Part of the brain of the neuroscientist on call entering the darkened stage with her nerves on edge shouts “it’s the locus coeruleus in overdrive with so much news, preparing the brain to deal with the subject!” but, for the sake of the choreography, she is duly silenced and lets the others take care of the subject for the next two minutes – including the locus coeruleus.

This small region of the brainstem is responsible for making the brain alert, ready for action when there is a task to accomplish but also when the brain finds itself in a new place, surrounded by the unknown – like a stage on which you are stepping for the first time. As the unknown is a potential source of lurking dangers, it is essential that the locus coeruleus makes every unfamiliar detail demand the brain’s attention. The process is so automatic and important that knowing it doesn’t help at all. And so you have a neuroscientist on stage fighting the clamors of her locus coeruleus to stay focused on the choreography and not on the spotlights in the audience, the microphone on the stage floor, the black plastic covering the floor, the music that barely reaches your ears, the red lights of all the cameras and the person in the aisle to throw the ball to.

That’s what the dress rehearsal is for, whether it’s a play, concert or dance: to make the unknown known and thus keep the locus coeruleus calm at the moment, which lets your brain take care of the message instead of registering the unknown details around you for the first time.

By the way, the second performance, the following day, was great. The first served as a dress rehearsal and put all of our locus coeruleus at ease…

Originally published in July 2007 in Folha de São Paulo

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