Actors shut down parts of their brains to take on roles, scans reveal

'I got the idea that maybe acting was a bit similar to possession... when you’re acting you’re kind of being taken over by character,' says scientist

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 13 March 2019 01:02 GMT
Scientists conducted the first ever study monitoring brain activity in actors as they performed
Scientists conducted the first ever study monitoring brain activity in actors as they performed

To truly inhabit a role, actors must effectively turn off part of their brain, according to a new study based on brain scans of thespians.

In a series of experiments, actors were placed in MRI machines and asked to respond to questions as if they were Romeo or Juliet during the “balcony scene” from William Shakespeare’s play.

Scientists were surprised to see that as the participants mused on concepts ranging from romance to religion, their brains were truly taken over by those of the famous star-crossed lovers

They watched as brain activity dropped off, with a notable deactivation in a part of the frontal lobe.

This result suggested the portrayal of a fictional character goes far deeper than simply learning a script.

The research was led by Dr Steven Brown, a neuroscientist at Canada's McMaster University, who specialises in how the brain behaves while people are participating in music, dance and other art forms.

As no one had ever attempted to measure the brain activity underpinning drama, Dr Brown recruited a group of willing, university-trained actors to participate in his new study.

Inspired by a visit to Brazil in which he witnessed an indigenous possession ceremony, he thought there may be parallels to be drawn with actors.

“I got the idea that maybe acting was a bit similar to possession – that when you’re acting you’re kind of being taken over by character,” said Dr Brown.

This, he said, influenced his interpretation of the experiments, which he had originally assumed would reveal something quite different.

Normally his team looks for increases in brain activity that may underlie artistic pursuits, but in this study they were surprised to find activity was actually decreasing in certain key areas.

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“There wasn’t a literature to go by to make predictions, because this was the first study of its kind,” he said. “We thought there might be activation increases relating to pretending to be some kind of character – but instead we saw this activation decrease. That was very surprising to us.”

Over the course of four sessions in the MRI machines, the participants had to respond in four different ways – as themselves, as themselves with a British accent, answering for a friend and finally as if they were either Romeo or Juliet.

Only while undertaking their Shakespearean role did the people show deactivations in regions across their brains.

Like the people in the ceremony he had witnessed, Dr Brown suggested these people were actually losing their “sense of self” as they inhabited the characters’ minds.

Though this new area of research is still in its early days, publishing their findings in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the scientists said their study provided the first step towards understanding how people’s brains change when they take on different roles – whether in their daily lives or on stage.

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