Acting out: for actors, getting into character means shutting down parts of the brain


First ever study of the neurology of method acting draws surprising conclusions. Andrew Masterson reports.


Perhaps the most successful method actor of all time, Robert de Niro.

Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Being someone else might be less energy intensive than being yourself, new research indicates.

In a paper in the journal Royal Society Open Science neuroscientists Steven Brown, Peter Cockett and Ye Yuan present the first quantified evidence of the way the neurological cost of acting.

The scientists look specifically at a mode of performance known as method acting. First formulated by Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski in the 1930s, the approach requires a performer to find the inner, emotional “truth” of the character portrayed, and to, in one sense, “become” that character.

Marlon Brando was a renowned method actor, as are several major modern stars, including Robert de Niro and Angelina Jolie.

The fundamental aim of method acting, as Brown and his colleagues describe it, is to “assume a ‘fictional first person’ perspective”.

To find out what goes on in the brain during the adoption of such a person, the researchers recruited a cohort of university-trained actors and, one by one, strapped them into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device.

Each volunteer was then asked a series of hypothetical questions. They were all required to answer them, firstly, as themselves, and then again from the perspective of Shakespeare’s Romeo, for the men, or Juliet, for the women.

As they did so, Brown and colleagues watched which bits of the brain lit up.

The results were unexpected. Being Romeo or Juliet, it seems, takes way less effort than being plain old Jack or Jill.

“Compared to responding as oneself, responding in character produced global reductions in brain activity and, particularly, deactivations in the cortical midline network of the frontal lobe, including the dorsomedial and ventromedial prefrontal cortices,” the researchers write.

“Thus, portraying a character through acting seems to be a deactivation-driven process, perhaps representing a ‘loss of self’.”

They suggest that the data may point to physical evidence of the “the dual consciousness that typically characterizes dramatic acting”.

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  1. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.181908
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