What Actors Should Know About Neural Pathways + Character Development

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Photo Source: Photo by Attentie Attentie on Unsplash

My sister is a speech-language pathologist who trains patients to develop new neural pathways during rehabilitation for various brain injuries. Learning from her over the years has taught me much about the importance of building these new “mental highways.” As an actor, it’s lent great insights into the mind-body connection we all naturally have and how to better utilize it when building unforgettable characters.

A quick recap on neural pathways. In short, these are “a series of connected neurons that send signals from one part of the brain to another.” Neurons are essentially brain cells and there are three main types. Some control muscles, others are stimulated by our senses, and interneurons connect neurons together. Each of us already has a series of neural pathways and we’re constantly creating new ones. Utilizing connected neurons, we process information that’s received, interact with others, experience emotions and sensations, learn, and create new memories.  

You get the picture of why neural pathways are so essential and why awareness of them can come in handy when forging new characters! While we groove these new neural pathways into our intricate brains, forging new characters and maintaining them for potentially long periods of time, one can argue that actors create more opportunity for new neural pathways than non-actors, and perhaps in more creative and unique ways, as we role-play so often, consciously or not. Simply put, it’s our job to know how to roleplay, do it well, and seamlessly transfer from everyday life role-playing to doing so in a character we inhabit. It’s a beautiful dance we choreograph, observing ourselves, and others, and then incorporating that information in order to play our characters more intimately.

One British study was interested in this concept and sought to uncover just how actors’ brains worked when taking on a character. They aimed to answer exactly what occurred in an actor’s brain as they made rapid, yet seamless transitions between self and character. They considered the full gamut of processes, from everyday role-playing to dramatic acting, and laid some initial groundwork as to the cognitive neuroscience of acting and role-playing.

Throughout this process, they took into consideration that we each obviously have only one voice, body, personal traits, etc. with which to communicate. Therefore, this study argued, acting might be akin to a “deliberate process of possession, or, a substitution of the actor’s self by the character due to embodying that character.” In other words, we can’t speak with two accents simultaneously, but we can better embody a character by taking on one accent alone for example. Experiments were therefore conducted with actors using accents and suggested that even when not portraying a character explicitly, “gestural changes through personal mimicry” could be the initial pathway to embodying that character.  

What does this mean exactly? While it can be argued that despite all of the various acting methods and means of getting into a character, they all really boil down to two means of preparation; outside-in or inside-out. Or, in more formal terms, gestural or psychological approaches to material.

Basically, any acting theorists who believe that gestural and psychological approaches to material are related can rejoice at this point. It gives fuel to their argument that the two actually work together in achieving the same ultimate goal: the embodiment of a character. There’s also support here for theories of embodied cognition, which believe that when we change our gestural expressions we influence not only the way we think but the emotions we feel.

This is really valuable information for neural pathway building, or reconstructing them as it were, since the study’s results determined that simply changing the manner in which we speak, a small but significant gestural manipulation, can lead to neural differences in our brains, much like building a full-fledged character does.

While this study is by no means exhaustive and there are many types of actors, approaches to material, and ways of getting into character, it does enlighten us to the idea that through our embodiment of a character, we are potentially changing our brain’s networks. Here’s to playing more consciously in your career and in life!

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Laurel Harris
Laurel Harris is an accomplished actor and Emmy-winning producer known as Willem Dafoe’s wife in the screen adaptation of Dean Koontz’s best-selling novel, “Odd Thomas,” and for American Girl’s “Saige Paints the Sky,” opposite Jane Seymour. Voice to countless commercials, Laurel’s narrations in the “Nobel Legacy Film Series” premiered twice at the Venice International Film Festival, earning international acclaim. Laurel is a co-author of the International best-selling anthology, “Break Free to Peace, Love and Unity.”
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