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What goes on in the actorís brain?

By ROBERT W. BETHUNE
ART TIMES June 2007

Many a director has asked, ďWhat is going on in that actorís head?Ē Iíve asked that question myself, but not the way Iím asking it here. Here, I really do want to know whatís going on in the actorís head, and by that I mean the actorís actual brain. What are all those neurons doing while we act? I would love to know.

Neuroscience is making really fascinating strides these days. Weíre able to do real-time imagery of brain function, so that we can ask people to experience something of interest and watch how their brains respond. Itís still at a pretty coarse, broad level; itís not as if we can watch individual synapses fire and instantly know what each firing means, but we are getting to the point where we can learn really interesting things about how the human brain works, and begin to surmise how brain function relates to mind, to mental experience, to consciousness—that amazing mystery that has fascinated and puzzled humanity since the dawn of, well, consciousness.

Over the decades, actors have written from time to time about the experience of acting. Different actors express their experience different ways, and it seems clear that more than one fundamental kind of experience is involved, but for many actors—most actors, I would venture to say—the experience of acting involves a change in how one experiences oneself. For the time being—for the duration of the performance, and sometimes outside of performance as well—one experiences a change, sometimes a far-reaching change, in oneís sense of oneself.

My own experience is similar to much of what I see others write about. People who know me very well, such as my wife, tell me that in performance they see a clear and distinct difference between the me they know and the person they see on stage. When things are going right, I feel very much the same way, that when I am ďin characterĒ I think, feel and perceive things differently then when I am not. Yet, at the same time, I know who I am, I know what Iím doing, and I retain an awareness of what is going on, what my performance task of the moment is, and what performance tasks—speaking, moving, expressing in whatever manner, doing whatever there is to do—are coming up and how I mean to meet them. In many respects, it is not so very different from what I experience in real life; as I sit here writing, I am aware of who I am, where I am, whatís going on around me, what Iím doing and what I shall be doing in the next few moments. The difference between my world at this moment and my world on stage is that at this moment Iím not involved with a fiction.

Thatís the really fascinating thing to me. It is eminently possible, and frequently achieved on stage, to be so involved with a fiction as to generate perfectly authentic esthetic, cognitive and affective responses to that fiction. Sometimes there is a loss or blurring of awareness of the fiction as such; sometimes there is not; sometimes there is positive affirmation of the fiction, as in the many devices playwrights have used over the centuries such as direct address, stylization of language and action, presentational devices, alienation effects and so forth. Regardless of the style, and pace Herr Brecht, the effect is the same—intense involvement in the fiction, perhaps even more intense than oneís ordinary involvement in reality.

So now we come to it. What is the brain doing in all this? What is the flow of mental action? Does the mind of an audience member act in ways that mirror how the mind of the actor works? Is watching live theater different neurologically than watching a motion picture or reading a book? In what ways does the mind resist fictive involvement, and what thresholds are crossed on the way to accepting it? Is the brain at some level unable to distinguish reality from fiction? If so, how do other levels of the brain act to restore the distinction? How could we take advantage of better understanding of how the brain processes fiction to provide a better experience—and ethically, should we do so?

I hope someday, somewhere, somebody tackles serious research on the neurology of performative fiction. With any luck, it could shed fascinating light on this art of theater and art forms like it. Who knows when it will happen? But Iím looking forward to it when it does.

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