Actors show altered brain activity when in character, study finds

A recent study used MRIs to study the changes in brain activity when trained method actors responded to questions in and out of character.

  • Method actors employ an intensive approach to acting that involves staying in character for long periods of time.
  • The recent study asked trained method actors a variety of hypothetical questions under four different scenarios.
  • The results showed changes in brain activity depending on whether actors were in and out of character, including alterations to activity in the prefontal cortex — a key region in terms of self-awareness.

Method actors famously blur the lines between their everyday personalities and the characters they inhabit. Al Pacino, for instance, suffered an eye injury after stumbling into a bush while portraying a blind veteran during the filming of Scent of a Woman.

"You don't focus your eyes. And what happens is, you just go into a state," the actor once told Larry King.

So, what's happening in actors' brains when they inhabit a character? New research — published in Royal Society Open Science on March 13 — explored that question by using MRIs to observe changes in method actors' brain activity when they were asked to respond to hypothetical scenarios. All of the actors had been trained to portray either Romeo or Juliet, and had "no history of neurological disorders, psychiatric illness, alcohol or substance abuse, and were not taking psychotropic medications."

The actors were asked to think about how they'd respond to various questions related to intentions and motivations — such as "Would you go to a party you were not invited to?" and "Would you tell your parents if you fell in love?" — under four different scenarios:

  • From their own perspective
  • From a friend's perspective (of the same gender)
  • From Romeo or Juliet's perspective
  • From their own perspective, but with a different accent

The actors showed decreased brain activity in part of the prefrontal cortex (a critical region in terms of self-awareness) when asked to consider the questions from a third-person perspective — that of a friend. Interestingly, the participants showed similar activity changes when they inhabited the role of Romeo or Juliet.

"This might suggest that acting, as neurocognitive phenomenon, is a suppression of self-processing," the researchers wrote.

Brown et al.

Another interesting finding among the actors was that merely adopting a different accent — but still responding to questions as themselves — also seemed to cause changes in the prefrontal cortex.

"Perhaps the most surprising finding of the study was that the British accent condition — during which the participants were instructed to maintain their self-identity — showed a similar deactivation pattern vis-à-vis the self that acting did, suggesting that gestural mimicry of even a completely unspecified other has an impact on brain areas involved in self-processing," the researchers wrote. "This supports the contention of acting theorists that gestural and psychological approaches might be related paths towards achieving the same goal, namely the embodied portrayal of a character. It also lends support to theories of embodied cognition, which argue that a change in gestural expression can influence the way that people think and the emotions that they feel."

Does this mean that acting is all about suppressing the self and becoming a wholly different persona? Maybe not, according to Professor Philip Davis, the director of the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at the University of Liverpool.

"This [research] suggests you cut off self, and you do something else — you deactivate self," he told The Guardian. "But actually, [actors] also use parts of self that they otherwise wouldn't use."

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Adam Gopnik on the rhinoceros of liberalism vs. the unicorns of everything else

Torn between absolutism on the left and the right, classical liberalism—with its core values of compassion and incremental progress whereby the once-radical becomes the mainstream—is in need of a good defense. And Adam Gopnik is its lawyer.

Think Again Podcasts
  • Liberalism as "radical pragmatism"
  • Intersectionality and civic discourse
  • How "a thousand small sanities" tackled drunk driving, normalized gay marriage, and could control gun violence
Keep reading Show less

You weren't born ‘to be useful’, Irish president tells young philosophers

Irish president believes students need philosophy.

Personal Growth
  • President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins calls for students to be thought of as more than tools made to be useful.
  • Higgins believes that philosophy and history should be a basic requirement forming a core education.
  • The Irish Young Philosopher Awards is one such event that is celebrating this discipline among the youth.
Keep reading Show less

Fascism and conspiracy theories: The symptoms of broken communication

The lost practice of face-to-face communication has made the world a more extreme place.

Videos
  • The world was saner when we spoke face-to-face, argues John Cameron Mitchell. Not looking someone in the eye when you talk to them raises the potential for miscommunication and conflict.
  • Social media has been an incredible force for activism and human rights, but it's also negatively affected our relationship with the media. We are now bombarded 24/7 with news that either drives us to anger or apathy.
  • Sitting behind a screen makes polarization worse, and polarization is fertile ground for conspiracy theories and fascism, which Cameron describes as irrationally blaming someone else for your problems.
Keep reading Show less