Art may be good for the soul, but it seems acting is also good for the brain. Helga and Tony Noice of Elmhurst College in Illinois have been testing, researching, and writing about actors' remarkable memories for most of their 36-year marriage. Tony, an actor and theatre professor, has found that a good actor is "a walking repository" ripe for memory studies.
Helga, a cognitive psychologist and frequent theatregoer, had always wondered why actors could easily memorize hours of dialogue. She noted, "The audience meeting the actor after a performance would always say, 'How did you learn all those lines?' But the actors rarely ever talk about that…. I decided to investigate the mental processes of actors."
What began as the thesis of her doctoral dissertation 25 years ago became a scientific passion for both. They've since conducted approximately 30 experiments on acting and cognitive ability, and published 50 articles. The conclusion: Acting activates different areas of the brain simultaneously, which is excellent exercise for our gray matter.
Psychological studies have shown that we are more likely to remember material if we prioritize it or relate the text to specific goals. This is exactly what actors do when they break a script into goal-directed beats. Helga refers to the principle as the "hierarchical nature of memory." In 1977, Dr. David Rumelhart found that statements high in the hierarchy were remembered better. Five years later, Dr. Richard Omanson reported that students better-remembered goals they rated more "central" in a story. According to the Noices, actors remember lines well because they make the dialogue meaningful. This engages several "brain systems" at once: not only the cognitive, which understands and processes information, but also the parts of the brain that control emotions and arousal.
"Instead of memorizing the script, they were making the script memorable," Tony said of their subjects who perform on Broadway and in top regional theatres. "Even more important than deeply personalizing the text is also meaning it every time you say it."
The Noices coined the phrase "active experiencing" to describe the act of remembering text by ascribing meaning. To actors, Tony pointed out, it's better-known as "being in the moment." The duo discovered that actors can also remember their lines for long periods of time. In one study, some actors remembered their lines verbatim three years after playing a role.
Yet actors don't appear to be better at memorizing in general. For example, when asked to memorize a passage from an encyclopedia, they did not recall the text better than a control group of nonactor college students. Helga thinks that the students were better at remembering such material because they regularly cram for tests, but then forget what they memorized. But acting exercises greatly improved the students' ability to retain information over longer periods of time.
After seeing the results, the Noices sought to expand their research. "We thought, 'Who would be the ideal people to test this on? People who are starting to have memory problems as they get older,'" Tony said.
With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Noices began teaching acting to residents of Chicago-area retirement homes. The ongoing experiment measures the seniors' cognitive abilities before and after going through one of three accelerated learning programs in acting, singing, or a control group that learned neither. While those in the singing group show improvement, graduates of the acting course measure higher.
"Our results have been terrific so far. We're getting huge boosts in memory, and we don't teach them any memory strategies, just to actively process the information," said Tony, who directs the seniors in scenes without words, then in scenes with two words, building up to full scenes. One of the acting course participants, 74-year-old Cecilia Schwer of Mayslake Village in Oak Brook, said she loved learning about performing. "I didn't know what to expect, but I found it very interesting. Elderly people today realize what a terrible thing Alzheimer's is, and we'd do anything to help stave it off," she told The Chicago Tribune.
Helga added that the seniors also enjoy the classes. "They're just having such a wonderful time," she said. "It's really wonderful to be working with these older people because they're so grateful." However, Tony pointed out that the goal of the classes is not to stage a full production. "We're not trying to make them memorizers; we're trying to keep their healthy by really activating them," he said. "And so it's better to activate them with short scenes that they can really accomplish and feel a sense of accomplishment than [by] putting them into plays." The Noices always leave plays and books of scenes for the seniors to peruse after the experiment. Residents of one facility in the Plymouth Place area have put on six shows since the Noices left.
The team hypothesizes that acting exercises could even stave off dementia and Alzheimer's disease. They said they would like to find out if there are fewer instances of dementia in retired actors, such as with the residents of The Lillian Booth Actors' Home of The Actors' Fund of America in New Jersey and the Motion Picture and Television Fund residential community in Woodland Hills, Calif.
The Noices' next experiment may be their most groundbreaking yet: This summer they plan to look at actors' brains as the actors learn lines. They'll do so by hooking subjects up to an MRI machine fitted for psych experiments. Tony said it will be the first study of its kind. "We're hoping to see more actual brain activity on an MRI machine when actors and nonactors process the same verbal phrases," he noted.
They are confident their studies will continue to be a success if they overcome one of their biggest obstacles: convincing actors to participate. Tony takes care of the recruiting by asking his cast mates in various plays and fellow actors in casting directors' waiting rooms. However, Helga said science is rarely an actor's top priority. "We say, 'But you would really be helping science,'" she noted. "That is not very convincing. Helping them get a role—that's what's on their minds." On their very healthy minds, that is.