Method research: Actors ‘suppress sense of self’ when playing a new character

LONDON — Some of the greatest actors of all time, like Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis, are known for fully immersing themselves in their characters. While method acting is often seen as a somewhat extreme approach to portraying a character, fascinating new research exploring the neurological implications of acting suggest all actors may suppress their core sense of self while playing a new role.

Study authors from University College London say their findings imply that theater training may have a major impact on the fundamental mechanisms of the human brain.

In collaboration with Flute Theatre, a group that creates and delivers interactive productions of Shakespeare for autistic individuals and their families, the research team at UCL conducted this study using a series of sensory drama games, known as the Hunter Heartbeat Method.

Wearable brain imaging technologies developed by UCL’s department of Biomedical Engineering were utilized alongside physiological measurement devices to evaluate the brain activity of actors as they rehearsed scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Notably, when the actors heard their real name during the performance, their response was suppressed in the left anterior prefrontal cortex of the brain. That brain area is associated with self-awareness. This was observed consistently across six actors tested while rehearsing several times over the course of a week.

Conversely, when the performers weren’t acting, they responded normally to hearing their own name.

“We used new brain imaging methods to see into the brains of professional actors as they rehearsed Shakespeare, to try and understand the neuroscience of complex dynamic social interactions,” lead study author and PhD candidate Dwaynica Greaves says in a statement.

“The shout of a person’s own name is a powerful and compelling sound which normally makes the subject turn their head. It also engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain. However, our findings suggest that actors may learn to suppress their sense of self as they train in the theatre and take on a different character,” she continues. “This is the first time that neuroscientists have been able to record brain activity in actors as they perform a role. We hope that this study will help us understand what theatre training does to the brain and to build new connections between neuroscientists and theatre professionals.”

Study authors were also sure to investigate the interpersonal coordination between pairs of actors rehearsing together, in an effort to observe if they synchronize their bodies, heart rates, and brains. Similar activity patterns were indeed seen during rehearsals in the right inferior frontal gyrus and the right frontopolar cortex of the brains of two actors working together. These areas are usually associated with social interaction and action planning. However, this effect appeared confined to the brain data; it was not seen in the heartbeat or breathing data. This suggests there are specific brain systems at play during complex social interactions.

“Our findings indicate that collaborating with the theater industry could be helpful in producing theories about social interaction that could also be investigated in the real world,” Ms. Greaves adds. “Our lab will continue to investigate the effects of theatrical training on an actor’s sense of self, in the hope that theatrical training could aid the development of important social cognitive abilities. Our future work will look at whether young people, including those with autism, can learn new social skills by taking part in theatre activities.”

“‘What’s in a name?’ cries Juliet. More than meets the eye, it would appear,” comments Kelly Hunter, Artistic Director of Flute Theatre. “As ever, Shakespeare would seem to have understood instinctively 400 years ago, what scientists are proving empirically now. I had always been interested in the changes that occur internally when we hear, speak and even think about our own name as well as the names of those we have strong feelings toward. The scientific recognition that our physiological selves respond when we hear our names, deepened my understanding of the sensory drama games I play with autistic individuals, especially those who are non-verbal.

“Since the collaboration with UCL in 2019, I have deepened and developed the way I use the names of the autistic participants within the framework of our performances,” she continues. “It’s been a perfect blend of artistic instincts and scientific questioning creating a deeper pool of understanding of how we communicate.”

Moving forward, the team at UCL would like to conduct more research focusing on neurological differences between trained and untrained actors. Study authors also note that the sample size used for this project was rather small for neuro-imaging research. A total of six actors were examined over the course of 19 data collection sessions. A control group consisting of people without theater training was not included.

The study is published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

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