What Happens to an Actor’s Brain When Acting?

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Photo Source: DreamWorks Pictures + 20th Century Fox. Pictured – Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

New research has revealed that some acting requires more than just line memorization—but you already knew that, didn’t you? Now you can take a bit of science to your next family dinner: an experiment conducted by Canada’s McMaster University has demonstrated that the brains of method actors performing Shakespeare display a marked “loss of self” – they are literally losing themselves in the role.

In the wonderfully named The Neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet, a team led by Steven Brown placed actors in an MRI scanner and monitored their brain activity as they answered a series of hypothetical questions firstly as themselves, and then as a close friend, as themselves with a British (rather than their native Canadian) accent, and finally as Romeo or Juliet.

It is notable that the study chose to work with method actors as the ability to step inside the role internally as well as externally was a key part of the experiment’s set-up. “As MRI experiments provide significant constraints on gesturing and facial expression, we opted to use actors with a psychological approach towards getting into character (rather than a gestural one), in particular, the method of [Stanislavsky],” read the research article. “All participants were trained as actors using the psychological ‘method acting’ approach to character portrayal...[requiring] a psychological, rather than a gestural, orientation towards getting into character.”

What is method acting?
Method acting is a technique where actors inhabit, on a psychological level, the persona of a fictional character. Rather than consciously reciting lines and actions, they’re internalizing the expression of that character. The System led to a renaissance in on-camera acting in the ’50s, making room for hyper-realistic performances. Well-known adherents include Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who famously remains in character for the duration of his film roles, on and off camera.

READ: The Definitive Guide to the Stanislavsky Acting Technique

Why did the study use method actors?
The report explains: “Actors are required to portray other people and to adopt their gestures, emotions and behaviours. Consequently, actors must think and behave not as themselves but as the characters they are pretending to be.”

In other words, if an actor had simply recited lines, a different part of their brains could have been activated, one which simply reflects learnt, repetitive behaviour like tying shoelaces or brushing teeth. The test needed actors to be Romeo or Juliet, not just to repeat their words.

Why did they use Shakespeare?
Practically all trained actors will be familiar with Shakespeare’s work – it’s as close to a universal language as exists within the acting world. Shakespeare is widely acknowledged as the greatest-ever playwright in the English language, as is attested to by the hundreds of every-day phrases he invented that we still use, including cold-blooded, for goodness sake, good riddance, break the ice, wild goose chase, lie low and so on. The report describes how the actors all rehearsed monologues from the famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet prior to the experiment, so it was a good choice for covering both male and female roles. And after 400 years, there is a distance and definition to his language that suited the experiment, allowing them to create bright lines around the different roles the actors were required to play.

READ: The Beginner’s Guide to Shakespeare

What were the results?
For the first time ever, the experiment proves the magic that actors create is not just on the outside: “Responding in character produced…deactivations in the cortical midline network of the frontal lobe...Thus, portraying a character through acting seems to be a deactivation-driven process, perhaps representing a ‘loss of self.’ ” In English, this means that the part of the brain associated with our sense of being ourselves – our conscious identity – is deactivated, an extraordinary achievement.

This was coupled with a major increase of activity in the precuneus – a brain area involved with episodic memory and visuospatial processing, which the report suggests could be down to “the dual consciousness that typically characterizes dramatic acting.”

The study provides the first steps towards a scientific understanding of the neuroscience behind acting and role-playing, and it’s too early to know its effect on how acting is taught and understood in the future. But the next time someone tells you that acting is just pretending, you’ll know just how untrue that is.


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