The art of theatre is probably one of the oldest forms of entertainment there is. Even now, audiences still gather in open-air amphitheaters, black box theaters and (of course) multiplex movie theaters to watch all kinds of stories unfold before their eyes. And sitting in the dark with strangers to experience that would not be possible without the actors who take on various roles to tell the tale.
Acting is far more than just pretending to be someone else. Rather, it's a complex process that requires an individual to fully embody another character, including their personality, emotions, motivations and mannerisms.
Given acting's cognitive and emotional demands, let's take a look at the neural mechanisms of getting into character.
The Psychology of Method Acting
The intricate cognitive pathways and emotional processes involved in acting is (relatively) little understood by science: A minimal number of studies have looked into the neuroscience of taking on a role.
But some recent research is starting to change that. In 2019, a study published by the Royal Society Open Science examined the brain regions that are activated when method actors adopt a fictional first-person perspective during dramatic role-playing.
The authors asked the participants, who were in an MRI scanner, to respond to a series of hypothetical questions as both themselves and their assigned characters. They found that the actors’ brain activity in the areas involved in self-processing — the dorsomedial and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (PFC) — was reduced when responding in character, rather than responding as themselves. The authors interpret the observed brain changes as a suppression of self.
This suggests that acting, to an extent, is a suppression of self-processing.
“Theatrical art forms are unique in that performers have to portray themselves on stage as people who they themselves are not,” says Steven Brown, a cognitive scientist at McMaster University in Canada who was involved in the 2019 study. “This phenomenon is poorly studied in the psychology literature and was not studied at all in an imaging study until my fMRI study. Children across cultures engage in pretend play, and so play-acting seems to be an important developmental step in socialization.”
Examining Actors' Brain Activity
A more recent study also found that theatre actors might be suppressing their sense of self to an extent when acting. The authors of a small 2022 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience used wearable brain imaging technologies to record actors’ brain activity when performing a role. The PFC usually gets activated when an individual’s name is called out, but when the actors heard their own names during a performance, the PFC response was suppressed.
"[We] thought that a robust, empirical way to measure an actor’s self-prioritization in the brain was to measure their response to their own name whilst acting versus not acting,” says Dwaynica Greaves, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London who was involved in the 2022 study.
Imposing name-call events provided insight into the processing of the self and the situations that may suppress it, which, in this case, is being in character. These findings about the neurocognitive phenomenon of acting encourage further research into the brain activity of theatre actors in and out of their roles.
Greaves says it’s a worthwhile subject to study, because the techniques actors develop in training may turn out to be beneficial in strengthening pro-social cognitive skills.
Is Method Acting Dangerous?
Embodying a character and evoking realistic emotions to tell their story, whether it’s on a theatre stage or a film set, can blur the lines sometimes. Characters can "take over" the actor's self and have them doing or saying things they normally wouldn’t.
For instance, somebody performing as an angry woman may find themselves being short-tempered around everyone. A 2019 literature review reported that blurring the boundaries with the character may result in a change of personality or even dissociation.
“It has been reported in mainstream media that acting techniques such as method acting can have severe effects on an actor’s mental health,” says Greaves.
When an actor goes too deep into a role, especially for a long period, they might find it challenging to drop the character. After shooting Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan reportedly had a difficult time getting out of the mindset of his film's villain, Erik Killmonger. Lady Gaga also experienced some "psychological difficulty" towards the end of filming House of Gucci when she was too absorbed by her character, Patrizia Reggiani.
The Psychological Impact of Acting
At present, a large gap in research still remains when it comes to the psychological impacts of acting. Extensive studies about the neuroscience of acting are also necessary to explore the subject even further and investigate what happens when actors slip in and out of a role.
There may be various degrees to how much being in character can affect oneself, something that Greaves is investigating further.
“I would hypothesize that an actor's training technique will influence the distance actors create between themselves and their character,” she adds. “This distance will then determine whether there are long- or short-term effects on the sense of self.”
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