Still from the 1968 film 'Romeo and Juliet'.

Still from the 1968 film ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

The best actors leave their true selves at home and climb the stage in the shoes of someone who often lives a different life entirely. According to a new study, when they truly play a character, actors effectively turn off a part of their brain that is responsible for conjuring a sense of self.

When the character takes over

Steven Brown studies the cognitive and neural foundations of music, dance, and other art forms at McMaster University in Canada. Previously, Brown showed that music employs a number of mechanisms for conveying emotion, including the use of contrastive scale types — Westerners are familiar with the major/minor distinction, for instance. Brown’s research also showed that music and language sit ‘side by side’ in the brain, sharing “combinatoric generativity for complex sound structures (phonology) but distinctly different informational content (semantics).”

In a new study, Brown and colleagues were among the first to scan the brain of actors while they were acting. They recruited university-trained actors who were placed in an MRI machine while having to respond to questions in four different ways: as themselves, as themselves with a British accent, as a friend, and as if they were either Romeo or Juliet.

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Each scenario led to different brain activity patterns. For instance, when the actors had to think about how a friend might reply to a question, they experienced a drop in brain activity in particular areas of the prefrontal cortex. This is in line with previous experiments involving the “theory of mind” – the ability to infer how other people might be thinking or feeling.

When they embraced the Shakespearean role, researchers noticed similar patterns as when they replied as a third-person. But, in addition, the participants also experienced a reduction in activity in two regions of the prefrontal cortex associated with a sense of self. Typically, artistic activities such as playing music or dancing increase brain activity but, this time, researchers were surprised to find that acting suppressed brain activity.

According to Brown, actors may be losing their sense of self when playing a role. In fact, the scientist draws parallels to indigenous possession ceremonies he had witnessed during a trip to Brazil. That’s not to say that actors are ‘possessed’ — there are still themselves even when on stage. But Brown suspects that the two types of persons — one on stage, the other in the Amazon jungle — might share similar brain patterns. This line of research is barely in its infancy, so we’re certain to find out more in the future as more similar studies are made.

The findings appeared in the journal Royal Society Open Science.