Quirks & Quarks

Actors' brains have different activity patterns when they're in character

'The more you become someone else, the less there is of you'

'The more you become someone else, the less there is of you'

Method actors were asked to take on the role of Romeo or Juliet and then answered hypothetical questions in character in a brain imaging machine (Reuters)
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When a method actor takes on a new role, their goal is to get inside the minds of the characters they play — to fully inhabit another personality. It's always been a bit of a mystery what that psychological transformation looks like inside the brain.

Now a new study suggests that, as far as their brains are concerned, when actors are in character they really do lose themselves in their performance.

The new study, published in Royal Society Open Science was led by Steven Brown, an associate professor of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour at McMaster University and the director of their NeuroArts Lab. 

He told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald that he pursued this project because the neural underpinnings of acting were one of the last great unexplored areas in the science of the arts.

"I'd done previous work on music and dance and visual art, and so acting was kind of a big frontier that no one had looked at before," said Brown.

How to study an actor's brain

For his study Brown recruited theatre majors from McMaster University who had all been trained in the Stanislavski method.  The Stanislavski method for actor training involves a systematic approach to getting into character.  Actors try to understand the motivations of their character so they can take on the psychology of the character they're playing.

Each of the actors had to answer hypothetical questions inside an fMRI scanner. They answered questions from their own perspective, and then were asked to do it from the perspective of a well-known character in a play. The questions included:

  • Would you go to a party you were not invited to?
  • Would you tell your parents if you fell in love?
  • Would you attend the funeral of someone you didn't like?

"In the task of interest, we had them get into the character of either Romeo and Juliet — as situated in the balcony scene of Shakespeare's play — and asked the question from the first person perspective of the character. 'So I, Romeo would or would not go to a party that I was not invited to,'" said Brown.

By comparing the actors' brain activity between their own personal perspective and when they answered in character, Brown could see exactly what happens when an actor shifts into character.  

The theatrical actors taking part in the study were told to get into character — 'as situated in the balcony scene of Shakespeare's play.' (LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Losing their sense of self

"The first thing that I noticed when I was analyzing the data is that there was definitely just a global reduction in brain activity throughout much the brain when people were in character compared to when they're answering the same types of questions as themselves," said Brown.

When he zoomed in on the data to look at the specific areas of the brain were activity was decreased, it turned out to be in parts of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. This area is known to be involved in "self-processing."

I do see acting — at least in part — as being kind of a 'zero sum game' where there's just one of you to go around. And the more you become someone else, the less there is of you.- Steven Brown, McMaster University

"For example, if you give people a list of adjectives and say, 'Do these adjectives apply to you?,' then this part of the brain is active when people have to reflect on their properties, their traits, in terms of the self," said Brown. "And so this was a part of the brain that we found that was reduced — deactivated we say — when people had to get into the character of Romeo or Juliet."

Brown says his findings do seem to suggest that acting involves a loss of self.

"Having these observations of a loss of self as seen in the fMRI studies kind of conforms with ideas about acting that there's only one you, only one vessel for your expression," added Brown. "So I do see acting — at least in part — as being kind of a 'zero sum game' where there's just one of you to go around. And the more you become someone else, the less there is of you."

The late actor Heath Ledger famously used an extreme version of the "Stanislavski method" for getting into a role to transform into the characters he played. (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Keeping a split focus

There is also another interesting shift in the brains of actors when they go into character — an activation increase in an area of the brain known as the precuneus.

"This is the part of the brain that's associated very much with attentional control," said Brown. "And so there's been discussion for more than a century that actors have kind of a split consciousness, that — when they're acting, they have to kind of divide their attention between the character and themselves."

Of course actors can't abandon their own perspective entirely while they're performing. They still have to be mindful of the stage or the camera.

"The activation in this precuneus area might reflect the split consciousness that actors undergo when they have to portray the character, but still sort of be mindful of themselves as performers."

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