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Science meets the human spirit in Dec. 4 reading of 'On Ego'

Robert Desimone
Robert Desimone

Catalyst Collaborative at MIT (CC@MIT), a collaboration between MIT and Underground Railway Theater (URT), will present a staged reading of "On Ego," co-written by British playwright Mick Gordon and neuropsychologist Paul Broks, on Monday, Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Room 10-250.

Directed by Jon Lipsky, the reading will feature performances by Stephen Russell, Wes Sanders and Debra Wise. Supporting actors from MIT's student body will also make special appearances. The event is the fourth in a series of free, staged readings of plays exploring science.

Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Center for Brain Research at MIT, will lead an open discussion of issues raised by the play directly following the reading. The conversation will be facilitated by Wise, URT's artistic director, and will include Lipsky, Russell and Sanders.

According to the co-authors, "On Ego" was inspired by Broks' best-selling book "Into the Silent Land," a poetic meditation on the nature of the brain that was short-listed for the Guardian First Book award in 2003 and has been translated into 10 languages. "On Ego" combines art, science and philosophy to examine the idea of the self.

How does the brain construct a self?

"On Ego" portrays a neuroscientist whose experiments on a futuristic cutting edge of consciousness lead him to confront the greatest scientific and philosophical riddle of all: How does the brain construct a self? Or, to put it an earthier way, how does meat become mind?

The stakes of the dramatic conflict are raised by the passionate and complicated personal relationships among the characters--a father, a husband and a wife with slowly progressing brain cancer. Dramatically juxtaposing "ego theory" with "bundle theory," "On Ego" explores whether we are simply skin, bone and 100 billion brain cells, or feeling, loving, thinking individuals.

Gordon, who has served as director of London's Gate Theatre and associate director for the National Theater, described how a dramatist and a scientist could co-write a play.

"Not only do theater and neurology have a shared language," said Gordon, "but through Paul Broks I discovered a philosophical realm with concrete situations to explore."

According to Gordon, several of Broks' case studies of patients whose brains have been damaged through disease or accident have been incorporated into "On Ego."

"We still don't really know how the brain constructs itself. But the evidence-gatherers are the neurologists who work with people whose brains have been damaged. Although, as Paul always points out, all our brains are damaged to a lesser or greater extent--it is just a matter of degree on a sliding scale," Gordon said.

"On Ego" is a "theatrical essay," a form Gordon has been developing over 10 years with his company, On Theatre. He has described his artistic goal as creating a "thinking space for 90 minutes during which audience members can reflect on a given theme, and re-evaluate their relationships with themselves." His first such theater essay was "On Death," followed by "On Love" and "On Religion." Gordon is currently creating "On Emotions" with Broks, examining how fear response is a basis of decision-making.

Broks trained as a clinical psychologist at Oxford University before specializing in neuropsychology. He is senior clinical lecturer at Plymouth University in Britain, and his research publications cover topics including autism, schizophrenia and acquired brain disorder.

"On Ego" and "Into the Silent Land" have been optioned for a motion picture, and no full productions can take place in the United States. "On Ego" is being presented in Cambridge as a staged reading by CC@MIT under a special agreement with its authors.

For more information on the reading at MIT, please call x3-2787.

A second reading of "On Ego" will be presented on Tuesday, Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre (820 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge).

Following the Dec. 5 reading, Wise and Lipsky will lead an open discussion with Lauren Slater, psychologist and author of six books, including "Welcome to My Country," "Prozac Diary," "Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir" and "Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century."

For more information, please call (781) 643-6916 or email

Seating for the readings of "On Ego" is limited; no tickets or reservations are necessary.

CC@MIT will present its first full production-an adaptation of Alan Lightman's best-selling book "Einstein's Dreams"--April 19-29, 2007, at the Broad Institute as part of the Cambridge Science Festival--the nation's first city-wide celebration of science.

The Catalyst Collaborative at MIT was established to develop new plays about science and to provide the public with a better understanding of our increasingly scientific and technological world.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 15, 2006 (download PDF).

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