Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Acting as another requires self-suppresion

Column_385 Acting as another requires self suppresion

I wrote here recently that the brain in a creative state stops self-policing and lets itself be carried away by its own baggage accumulated throughout life, freely forming and discovering new associations between the elements, including memories and emotions, in its repertoire. The products of our creativity are therefore highly personal – this is guaranteed by the structures of the self-referential system of the cerebral cortex, which bring together all the parts of the “I” and take charge of behavior during improvisational actions. In other words: creative moments are when we are most purely ourselves.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to discover that temporarily becoming someone else involves the opposite mechanism: shutting oneself up and acting according to an external plan. From this perspective, acting – acting as if in the shoes of a character – is the opposite of a creative process of self-expression. Acting requires self-suppression.

This comes from neuroscientists from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who published a study in 2019 with the delightful name of “The Neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet”. The name was perfectly appropriate: the researchers invited professional actors and actresses, adherents of the Stanislavski Method of acting, to embody Romeo and Juliet, respectively, from inside the magnetic resonance imaging machine, which captures the tiny variations in the brain’s activity through its interference with the magnetic field generated by the machine. The method consists of embodying characters from the inside out, adopting their personality, rather than embodying them gesturally, from the outside in.

The study compared the pattern of brain activity while the volunteers answered questions as themselves; as themselves, but doing Shakespeare’s English accent; and with the same accent, but now acting as if they were Romeo or Juliet.

The result is that in the skin of their characters, the actors are literally out of their minds: the medial structures of the prefrontal cortex that keep us integrated, normally interfacing between reason and emotion that define our temperament and personality, are strongly deactivated. The “self” therefore fades away as the actor embodies another person. Meanwhile, the pre-cuneal cortex, also on the medial side of the brain but close to the visual areas, which is largely responsible for attention, works at full throttle, keeping the various parts of the embodied Other in the air.

Acting is literally ceasing to be oneself – which, unlike creating, requires great self-control.

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo in April 2021.

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