Actors’ brain activity changes when in character

Brain imaging study finds that actors’ sense of self fades away while they are performing.

It seems it really is possible for actors to lose themselves in a role. Activity in a part of the brain associated with self-knowledge and self-perception drops off when actors are performing, researchers from the NeuroArts Lab at McMaster University, Canada, have found. The finding suggests that playing the part of another character results in a loss of self, they say.

The study focused on a group of 15 third and fourth-year theatre studies students recruited from McMaster University, all trained in ‘method acting’ – an approach in which actors aspire to fully embody the emotions of their characters, which has been widely popularized by icons like Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Daniel Day-Lewis.

The team, led by Steven Brown, placed each of the actors into an MRI scanner a total of four times and scanned their brain activity while they answered a series of questions. Each time they were randomly tasked with answering the questions differently: as themselves, but in a British accent, as a close friend, or as if they were playing the part of Romeo or Juliet in Shakespeare’s famous play.

Usually, in such studies, Brown’s team looks for increases in brain activity when performing tasks that differ from the control (in this case, answering questions themselves). But the researchers found that activity in certain areas of the brain actually dropped when the students were answering as Romeo or Juliet.

“Instead we found mainly deactivations or reduction in the level of activity in the brain compared to when they were answering questions as themselves,” said Brown. “The major area where we found these reductions was the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex. It’s a part of the brain that is definitely involved in self-processing, especially knowledge of one’s own physical or personality traits.”

However, they also found increased activity in the precuneus, a part of the brain that is associated with attention.

“Actors have to divide their attention between themselves and the character and so we think this activation increase may reflect something about the split consciousness or divided attention that actors have to bring to the role,” said Brown. “Where they have to be the character but still monitor the fact that they are themselves. Especially if you are walking around on stage where you don’t want to bump into the furniture.”

There are, as yet, no planned clinical applications of the findings, but Brown says it could perhaps help us to understand how therapies involving roleplay can prove effective in treating sufferers of anxiety or PTSD or helping couples to understand each other’s viewpoints in relationship counselling.