At our English boarding school in the 1990s, my friends and I would spend hours immersed in roleplaying games. Our favourite was Vampire: The Masquerade, and I can well remember experiencing a kind of psychological hangover after spending an afternoon in the character of a ruthless undead villain. It took a while to shake off the fantasy persona, during which time I had to make a conscious effort to keep my manners and morals in check, so as not to get myself into some realworld trouble.
If a little fantasy roleplay can lead to a morphing of one’s sense of self, then what must it be like for professional actors, and especially so-called method actors, who follow the teachings of the Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski and truly embody the parts they play?
There is certainly anecdotal evidence that actors experience a blending of their real self with their assumed characters. For instance, Benedict Cumberbatch said that, while he enjoyed playing a character as complex as Sherlock Holmes, there is also ‘a kickback. I do get affected by it. There’s a sense of being impatient. My mum says I’m much curter with her when I’m filming Sherlock.’
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Mark Seton, a researcher in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Sydney, has even coined the provocative term ‘post-dramatic stress disorder’ to describe the sometimes difficult, lasting effects experienced by actors who lose themselves in a role. ‘Actors may often prolong addictive, codependent and, potentially, destructive habits of the characters they have embodied,’ he writes.
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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’.
Link to the rest at Aeon
Centuries ago, PG did a bit of acting in college. He wasn’t very good at it, but some of his friends were quite skilled and a few would go on to professional careers as actors, directors, etc.
After a performance, especially if it was the last performance, there was always a cast party. Invariably, the actors would drop various lines they had performed during the performance into the general conversation. Sometimes, they would participate in the party as the characters they had played earlier in the evening on and off.
PG has no doubt that, for a while, their brains were changed by the roles they played.
While he was reading the OP, he wondered whether there was a similar alteration of the brain when an author is writing dialogue or involved in an intense scene in a story. Mrs. PG says she thinks British when she’s writing a book set in that nation.