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Actors’ Brain Activity May Change When They Are in Character

A new study of actors’ brain activity suggests that they may ‘lose themselves’ when performing

Rami Malek, Olivia Colman, Regina King and Mahershala Ali pose with the Oscars they won for acting at the 91st Academy Awards. (John Rasimus / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
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Skilled actors do so much more than memorize and deliver lines; they embody their characters, getting to the root of their motivations and behaviors. According to the Guardian’s Nicola Davis, a new study has found that this immersive process may lead to distinct changes in actors’ brains—changes that suggest acting involves an element of self-suppression.

For the new research, published in Royal Society Open Science, scientists recruited 14 theater majors at McMaster University in Canada, along with one graduate of the program. All of them were trained in method acting, an intensive technique that involves immersing oneself in a character; the goal, according to the study authors, is to "become" that character. During the experiment, the actors were scanned by an MRI machine while being asked various questions, like “Would you go to a party you were not invited to? and “Would you tell your parents if you fell in love?” They were tasked with silently thinking of their answers in four different ways: from their own perspective; from the perspective of someone around their age whom they are close to; from their own perspective while using a British accent; and while in character as either Romeo or Juliet.

"Participants were instructed to answer the questions from a different perspective in each scan," the study authors note. "[N]o changes of perspective occurred within a scan."

Before the Rome0 and Juliet scan, the actors were given time to get into character through various methods, like reciting lines from the play. But the researchers wanted their responses during the scan itself to be off-the-cuff, just like the answers to the other questions. This was important, because the scientists needed a consistent way of comparing brain activity while acting to brain activity while thinking from one's own perspective or from the perspective of a third person.

Taking the point of view of a third person is, according to the study authors, akin to theory-of-mind,” a concept that describes the ability to think about and understand the emotions, beliefs and intentions of other people. The team hoped that the scans would offer insight into what happens in actors' brains when they take theory-of-mind to another level, not simply empathizing with the persepctive of another person, but adopting it. As the study authors point out, the participants answered the third-person questions using the pronouns "he" or "she." But when they got into character, the actors responded to the questions using the pronoun "I," a shift that is "central to training in the method system of acting."

The results of the scan showed that when the participants answered questions in both a British accent and from the perspective of a friend, activity decreased in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with self-awareness. This decrease in activity was even more pronounced when it came to the Romeo and Juliet scans. The actors seemed, to a certain extent, to be losing themselves in their roles.

The researchers did not anticipate these results. “We thought there might be activation increases relating to pretending to be some kind of character,” Steven Brown, lead study author and a neuroscientist at McMaster, tells the Independent’s Josh Gabbatiss. “[I]nstead we saw this activation decrease.” Just putting on an accent appeared to be enough to ratchet down activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is [p]erhaps the most surprising finding of the study, the researchers write.

Taking on the part of Romeo or Juliet did, however, lead to increased activity in one part of the participants’ brains: the precuneus, which has been linked to consciousness. “Actors have to split their consciousness,” Brown explains in an interview with the Guardian’s Davis. “[T]hey sort of have to monitor themselves and be in the character at the same time.”

Not all experts are convinced by the new research. Philip Davis, director of the Center for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at the University of Liverpool, tells the Guardian that in reality, actors don’t suppress the self—they engage with it. But the study represents an intriguing avenue of inquiry, suggesting that when actors shift into a new character, their brain activity changes too.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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