Christian Jarrett, Acting changes the brain: it’s how actors get lost in a role, Aeon, Oct. 21, 2019:
In one paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, a team led by Steven Brown at McMaster University in Ontario recruited 15 young Canadian actors trained in the Stanislavski approach, and scanned their brains while the actors assumed the role of either Romeo or Juliet, depending on their sex. The actors spent some time getting into character for the balcony scene, and then, while they lay in the scanner, the researchers presented them with a series of personal questions, such as ‘Would you go to a party you were not invited to?’ and ‘Would you tell your parents if you fell in love?’ The actors’ task was to improvise their responses covertly in their heads, while embodying their fictional character.The researchers then looked at the actors’ brain activity while they were in role, as compared with other scanning sessions in which they answered similar questions either as themselves, or on behalf of someone they knew well (a friend or relative), in which case they were to take a third-person perspective (covertly responding ‘he/she would’ etc). Crucially, being in role as Romeo or Juliet was associated with a distinct pattern of brain activity not seen in the other conditions, even though they too involved thinking about intentions and emotions and/or taking the perspective of another.In particular, acting was associated with the strongest deactivation in regions in the front and midline of the brain that are involving in thinking about the self. ‘This might suggest that acting, as a neurocognitive phenomenon, is a suppression of self processing,’ the researchers said. Another result was that acting was associated with less deactivation of a region called the precuneus, located further to the rear of the brain. Typically, activity in this area is reduced by focused attention (such as during meditation), and the researchers speculated that perhaps the raised activity in the precuneus while acting was related to the split of resources required to embody an acting role – ‘the double consciousness that acting theorists talk about’.
An actor's sense of self:
That last finding, indicating the ease with which the self can be weakened or overshadowed, jibes with another paper, published recently in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by a team at Dartmouth College and Princeton University, led by Meghan Meyer. Across several studies, these researchers asked volunteers to first rate their own personalities, memories or physical attributes, and then to perform the same task from the perspective of another person. For instance, they might score the emotionality of various personal memories, and then rate how a friend or relative would have experienced those same events. Or they would rate how much various character terms applied to themselves, and then how much they matched the personality of a friend.After taking the perspective of another, the volunteers scored themselves once again: the consistent finding was that their self-knowledge was now changed – their self-scores had shifted to become more similar to those they’d given for someone else. For instance, if they had initially said the trait term ‘confident’ was only moderately related to themselves and then rated the term as being strongly related to a friend’s personality, when they came to rescore themselves, they now tended to see themselves as more confident. Remarkably, this morphing of the self with another was still apparent even if a 24-hour gap was left between taking someone else’s perspective and re-rating oneself.
The first study:
Steven Brown, Peter Cockett and Ye Yuan, The neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet: an fMRI study of acting, Royal Society Open Science, Published:13 March 2019, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.181908.Abstract: The current study represents a first attempt at examining the neural basis of dramatic acting. While all people play multiple roles in daily life—for example, ‘spouse' or ‘employee'—these roles are all facets of the ‘self' and thus of the first-person (1P) perspective. Compared to such everyday role playing, actors are required to portray other people and to adopt their gestures, emotions and behaviours. Consequently, actors must think and behave not as themselves but as the characters they are pretending to be. In other words, they have to assume a ‘fictional first-person' (Fic1P) perspective. In this functional MRI study, we sought to identify brain regions preferentially activated when actors adopt a Fic1P perspective during dramatic role playing. In the scanner, university-trained actors responded to a series of hypothetical questions from either their own 1P perspective or from that of Romeo (male participants) or Juliet (female participants) from Shakespeare's drama. 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. Thus, portraying a character through acting seems to be a deactivation-driven process, perhaps representing a ‘loss of self'.
Meyer ML, Zhao Z, Tamir D, Simulating other people changes the self, J Exp Psychol Gen. 2019 Apr 29. doi: 10.1037/xge0000565.Abstract: The self is not static. Our identities change considerably over development and across situations. Here, we propose one novel cause of self-change: simulating others. How could simply imagining others change the self? First, when simulating other people’s mental states and traits, individuals access self-knowledge; they do so while concurrently considering information about the other person they are trying to understand. Second, episodic and semantic knowledge is malleable and susceptible to incorporating new, postevent information. If self-knowledge is similarly malleable, then simulation may change self-knowledge such that it incorporates information about the simulated person (i.e., “postevent information”). That is, simulation should render the self more similar to the simulated other. We test this hypothesis in 8 studies. In each study, participants (a) recalled personal information (e.g., traits and episodic memories), (b) simulated other people in similar contexts, and (c) re-recalled personal information. Results consistently demonstrated that simulating others changed self-knowledge, such that the self becomes more similar to the simulated other. This effect occurred for both traits and memories, spanned self-report and linguistic measures, and persisted 24 hr after simulation. The findings suggest that self-knowledge is susceptible to misinformation effects similar to those observed in other forms of semantic and episodic knowledge.
See also, William Benzon, First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts, August 21, 2000,
Download at, https://www.academia.edu/8331456/First_Person_Neuro-Cognitive_Notes_on_the_Self_in_Life_and_in_FictionAbstract: We can think of the self as the result of interaction between subcortical systems for regulating the global brain state and largely cortical systems for representing the current body state and autobiography. The personal pronoun system is at the interface between the cortical and subcortical systems. By constructing a network model for the pronoun system that is grounded in basic machinery for social interaction we show how the pronoun system allows speakers to achieve self-reference and how this capacity engenders the illusion of a unified self. The same model allows us to see that there is no essential difference between reliving incidents from one’s own past and giving life to imaginary characters in ritual and in literary works. Such imaginative experience may play a role in maintaining the coherence of the self through different emotions.