Can the theatre change our minds about crime?

From the books we read, to the films and programmes we watch, and the theatre productions we attend, the arts’ have the power to get us all talking and thinking. But can they actually influence our perceptions of real issues?

Using the play 'Brainstorm', (a Company Three production about teenage brain development), as a litmus test, recently published Oxford University research examines exactly that.

The study set out to see if watching a play about the teenage brain, could impact how people felt about criminal responsibility. Because of the nature of the production, perceptions of offences committed by children under the age of sixteen were of particular interest.

From hormonal outbursts, to rash decisions and bouts of expression, it is well known that young people go through a lot of behavioural changes during adolescence. How much people understand that it is the brain’s natural mechanisms that cause these changes, as it develops, with age, is less well known. Produced in collaboration with neuroscientists at UCL, and teenage performers, ‘Brainstorm’ supports this understanding, communicating complex scientific knowledge and highlighting the various developmental changes that adolescents experience as their brains change.

An adult might find it easier to resist the urge to lash out, or respond to confrontation. But, for a teenager, that impulse is likely to feel stronger and much harder to resist. Their brains naturally respond to impulses, and the part of their brain that would ordinarily resist them is still developing, and therefore much weaker.

When considered in the context of criminality, if people are not truly responsible for their brains and the brain influences whether or not we offend, it could be argued that teenage offenders may not be truly responsible for their crimes.

‘Brainstorm’ audience members were asked to complete a survey of questions, either before or after watching the play. A total of 728 respondents shared their views on four questions, framed around three key issues; the age of criminal responsibility, moral responsibility and the likelihood of reoffending.

Results revealed that the play did affect audience attitudes to crime, and particularly youth crime. After watching the play, participants perceived a hypothetical young offender as less likely to reoffend than an adult offender. They also perceived the young, but not adult offender, as less morally responsible for their actions, especially those who had committed a first time offence.

Robert Blakey, the study’s author and a DPhil student at Oxford’s Centre for Criminology, said: ‘We all have this feeling that when we resist an impulse, we are deciding to resist that impulse – not our brain, but this mental sense of me that makes decisions free from biological constraints. But neuroscience suggests this just isn’t true. We are always affected by our brain – in every decision that we make.

‘After learning about the science of the teenage brain, the public may change how it views teenage offenders. And that’s exactly what happened after these theatre goers watched 'Brainstorm'. They changed how they viewed teenage offenders.

‘In the future, I expect neuroscience to change our priorities, so that we think more about why teenagers offend, and how we can help teenagers choose the right path, rather than ignoring the cause and closing the cell door completely’.

The full study is available to download from the online journal Frontiers in Psychology 

Learn more about the teenage brain in this Oxford Sparks animation: