Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Acting out

When I was (much) younger, I acted in a couple of low-key theater productions.  I won't say it was a bad experience, and I think I played my roles reasonably well, but to say I suffer from stage fright is an understatement of considerable proportions.  Frankly, it's a wonder I didn't hyperventilate and pass out as soon as I walked out on the stage.

Part of my problem is that I was never able to get past a feeling of "this is me out there on stage" -- to let go and become the character.  I've talked to some amateur (but dedicated) actors since that time, and one and all they say that once they get out under the lights, the fear evaporates, and they are able to be their character --who is, after all, not the guy whose knees are knocking together because he's terrified of being in front of an audience.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Comedy and tragedy masks without background, CC BY-SA 3.0]

This perception of good actors sinking themselves into their characters is apparently exactly what happens, to judge by a recent paper in Royal Society Open Science by Steven Brown, Peter Cockett, and Ye Yuan of McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario), called, "The Neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet: An fMRI Study of Acting."

In this study, actors were directed to portray scenes from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and then were hooked up to an fMRI scanner and then asked questions about how they would act in a variety of specific situations if they were the character.  And what they found was pretty intriguing:
[This is] 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."
Which is fascinating.  It also makes me wonder what would happen if the same experiment were performed on individuals who weren't trained actors, and especially on people (like myself) for whom acting is a seriously trying experience.  Is the problem that we can't deactivate our dorsomedial and ventromedial prefrontal cortices enough to get absorbed into the part -- so we can't "let go" enough to stop being ourselves?

Steven Brown, co-author of the study, thinks that's exactly what's happening.  "It looks like when you are acting, you are suppressing yourself; almost like the character is possessing you," Brown said, in an interview in The Guardian.  "The deactivation associated with a reduction, a suppression, of knowledge of your own traits I think conforms with what acting may involve...  Actors have to split their consciousness, they sort of have to monitor themselves and be in the character at the same time."

So it's not simply a loss of self; it's a selective switch-off of the parts of your self that motivate your actions and feelings.  There's always the supervisor there, making sure things don't go too off-kilter, but apparently it's difficult to act convincingly if you don't on some level stop being yourself.

This also brings to mind cases of actors who did seem to lose themselves entirely.  Andy Kaufman comes to mind, best known for his role as the hapless Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi.  The boundaries between Kaufman the actor, Kaufman the comedian, and Kaufman the created fictional character seemed blurry right from the outset.  He was famous for strange stunts like challenging audience members in his stand-up comedy routine to wrestle him, reading out loud for two hours from The Great Gatsby instead of performing his shtick, and (once) inviting the entire audience out for milk and cookies after the show -- which enough people took him up on that it required 24 buses.

While no one ever did an fMRI on Kaufman -- when he died in 1984, the fMRI had yet to be invented -- I really wonder what was happening in his prefrontal cortex.  You have to wonder if those regions involved with the sense of self turned off while he was acting, and stayed off.

In any case, the whole thing is interesting, both from the standpoint of human behavior and that of neuroscience.  And once again it makes me realize how fluid our perceptions are -- and that our sense of self is, truly, a creation of our brain's biochemistry.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is an entertaining one -- Bad Astronomy by astronomer and blogger Phil Plait.  Covering everything from Moon landing "hoax" claims to astrology, Plait takes a look at how credulity and wishful thinking have given rise to loony ideas about the universe we live in, and how those ideas simply refuse to die.

Along the way, Plait makes sure to teach some good astronomy, explaining why you can't hear sounds in space, why stars twinkle but planets don't, and how we've used indirect evidence to create a persuasive explanation for how the universe began.  His lucid style is both informative and entertaining, and although you'll sometimes laugh at how goofy the human race can be, you'll come away impressed by how much we've figured out.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]

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