In a new study that involved scanning the brain of method actors, scientists discovered varying patterns of brain activity when actors are in character with their roles.

“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,” says Dr. Steven Brown, a neuroscientist at the McMaster University in Canada and the study’s lead author.

Dr. Brown was inspired to conduct the study after witnessing an indigenous possession ritual in Brazil.

Studying Thespians

The study focused on studying the neural basis of method acting wherein actors assume a “fictional first-person perspective.” Method acting or dramatic acting was first developed by Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski.

The experiment featured 15 method actors, all theater students who were trained for the role of either Romeo or Juliet from the classic Shakespeare play.

The scientists were looking for increased brain activity that highlight artistic pursuits, but they discovered something surprising — decreased activities in specific areas of the brain during acting.

Deactivation Process During Acting

Brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging or MRI was the main method used in the experiment.

The actors were asked different questions, to which they replied based on the following scenarios: in their own personal perspectives, based on the view of a close friend, as Romeo for male actors, or as Juliet for female actors.

Patterns gathered and analyzed from the brain scan experiments showed that brain activities in the prefrontal cortex declined when responding from the perspective of a close friend as compared to when answering from a personal perspective.

The same was observed when the actors reply to questions while in the character of Romeo or Juliet. Reduced brain activities in the two regions of the prefrontal cortex manifested.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for personality expression and complex cognitive behaviors.

This suggests that due to the deactivation process during acting, it takes less effort for the brain to portray characters such as Romeo or Juliet than to become the real self.

“The deactivation associated with a reduction, a suppression, of knowledge of your own traits I think conforms with what acting may involve,” Brown said.

However, the activity in the part of the brain called precuneus increased when the actors were replying as Romeo or Juliet.

Precuneus is linked to a person’s consciousness. It is responsible for highly complex functions, including memory retrieval and first-person perspectives.

The findings of the study were published by the Royal Society Open Science.

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