The neuroscience behind the Cirque du Soleil

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Has it ever happened to you that you were so moved by a performance that you cried, without being able to explain later what you had experienced emotionally?

This is the objective of the Cirque du Soleil (CdS), probably the live performance that has the most success in provoking emotional responses in the audience.

To do this, the CdS hired neuroscientists, artists and technicians from the Lab of Misfits, a research laboratory, in order to understand what happens inside the heads of their audience during their performance, what human needs it satisfies and how this discovery can be used at our advantage in more functional behaviours in the everyday life.

The study has focused on 282 people from the audience, for five nights in a row and a total of 10 shows.

The metrics

A group of participants has been monitored through an EEG and, when the population examined referred to feel astonishment and apprehension, the researchers discovered that the brain activity in their pre-frontal cortices (the part of the brain that takes decisions and acts accordingly) diminished. On the other hand, the activity in the part of the brain linked to creative thinking, when someone daydreams or you imagine something, increased.

Evaluation questionnaires on the emotions experienced were instead assigned to a second group.

Those that had felt astonishment and apprehension claimed that:

  • They felt closer to the rest of the world (test: Identification With All Humanity, a scale developed by psychologists in 2012)
  • They felt more willing to take risks (test: Balloon Analogue Risk Task, a test developed by psychologists in 2002)
  • They felt more at ease with their uncertainty, a situation that our brain usually does not like

The study

The goal of the experiment was to understand, thanks to the help of artificial intelligence too, if it was possible to predict conditions that generate apprehension, wonder and fear, and how someone can use them to stimulate creativity, problem solving, group spirit and awareness.

If we think about it, wonder and apprehension are the same feelings we experience while watching a military parade or symbols of political parties: people feel that they are part of a bigger, single thing, as other people in other groups do, as long as they are part of a bigger group with a strong authority figure in command.

Such feelings can help us more than we ever thought.

Has it ever happened to you that you were so moved by a performance that you cried, without being able to explain later what you had experienced emotionally?

What to do to transform the astonishment

What neuroscience has demonstrated is that feeling wonder brings a greater awareness of things we don’t know, which in turn makes us more inclined to search for new experiences to bridge these gaps and to fear uncertainty less.

Wonder is the preamble of curiosity and creativity, and a formidable weapon against uncertainty.

This happens because:

  • Loosening the need for cognitive control, the need to take risks increases, an opening to uncertainty.
  • Experiencing high levels of astonishment diminishes cytokine levels, chemical messengers that have a fundamental task in the regulation and activation of defensive mechanisms and inflammatory processes.
  • Creativity can be positively influenced by virtual reality experiences, that provoke astonishment and apprehension.
  • Wonder encourages collaboration and cooperation and makes us worry for others.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Astonishment is a knowledge activator too: once we become aware of a certain cognitive gap, this awareness produces in us a greater interest and the need to know more about it.

In a study, researchers have asked participants to watch a video about science that provoked apprehension and wonder. Then, they offered a free ticket for a visit in a science museum or an art museum. 68% of participants chose the science museum, rather than the art museum (32%).

“The majority of people doesn’t know what they don’t know”, says McPhetres (the first research to empirically test the relationship between wonder and knowledge), referring to what psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger effect.

This kind of experience makes people ask questions, research, look for information, read, search for answers in a methodological and systematic way.

What’s this information useful for?

McPhetres’ experiment can be applied on different fields, not only the scientific one. It tells us that if we make the subjects we want to talk about stimulating and interesting, then those topics will automatically become more stimulating and exciting to the eyes of our observers, whoever they may be.

The CdS did that with a performance, but think about how much information we could convey and how many discussions we could encourage, how many students we could captivate if we knew how to push (in the meaning proposed by the term nudge) people to use wonder as a means for knowledge.

As McPhetres said, “One thing is clear. Show what you want to propose/divulgate/sell in its entire beauty and you are certain that it will be perceived as magnificent and mysterious. Show the students some real and appliable uses of the theoretical details you are about to share and you will see their interest grow”.


Some readers may object that what I wrote about wonder is obvious. That is true. What isn’t true is the fact that (too) often the “wow effect” is used in a manipulatory way, to sell courses/products that are not really, if much at all, amazing.

Instead, if we used wonder to generate involvement, awareness and knowledge, we could obtain the same results, if not much more, and we could reach the same goals in a kinder way that lasts in the long term and with much less effort than one could think.

Call me visionary…

Laura Mondino


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