I'm thinking (again) about beeping people during aesthetic experiences. The idea is this. Someone is reading a story, or watching a play, or listening to music. She has been told in advance that a beep will sound at some unexpected time, and when the beep sounds, she is to immediately stop attending to the book, play, or whatever, and note what was in her stream of experience at the last undisturbed moment before the beep, as best she can tell. (See Hurlburt 2011 for extensive discussion of such "experience sampling" methods.)
I've posted about this issue before; and although professional philosophy talks aren't paradigmatic examples of aesthetic performances, I have beeped people during some of my talks. One striking result: People spend lots of time thinking about things other than the explicit content of the performance -- for example, thinking instead about needing to go to the bathroom, or a sports bet they just won, or the weird color of an advertising flyer. And I'd bet Nutcracker audiences are similarly scatterbrained. (See also Schooler, Reichle, and Halpern 2004; Schubert, Vincs, and Stevens 2013.)(image source: *)
But I also get the sense that if I pause, I can gather the audience up. A brief pause is commanding -- in music (e.g. Roxanne), in film -- but especially in a live performance like a talk. Partly, I suspect this is due to contrast with previous noise levels, but also it seems to raise curiosity about what's next -- a topic change, a point of emphasis, some unplanned piece of human behavior. (How interesting it is when the speaker drops his cup! -- much more interesting, usually, in a sad and wonderfully primate way, than the talk itself.)
I picture people's conscious attention coming in waves. We launch out together reasonably well focused, but soon people start drifting their various directions. The speaker pauses or does something else that draws attention, and that gathers everyone briefly back together. Soon the audience is off drifting again.
We could study this with beepers. We could see if I'm right about pauses. We could see what parts of performance tend to draw people back from their wanderings and what parts of performance tend to escape conscious attention. We could see how immersive a performance is (in one sense of "immersive") by seeing how frequently people report being off topic vs. on a tangentially related topic vs. being focused on the immediate content of the performance. We could vastly improve our understanding of the audience experience. New avenues for criticism could open up. Knowing how to capture and manipulate the waves could help writers and performers create a performance more in line with their aesthetic goals. Maybe artists could learn to want waves and gatherings of a certain sort, adding a new dimension to their aesthetic goals.
As far as I can tell, no one has ever done a systematic experience sampling study during aesthetic experience that explores these issues. It's time.