Brain Activity of Actors Shows They Really Do Lose Themselves While Performing


Nov 10, 2022


Image Credit: Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle

Many actors have famously remarked that they have, time and again, lost themselves in their performances. Now, researchers at University College London have found some truth to this statement. A new study suggests actors may suppress their sense of self when they take on a new character, hinting at the massive impact theater training may have on fundamental mechanisms of the human brain. 

“Our findings indicate that collaborating with the theatre industry could be helpful in producing theories about social interaction that could also be investigated in the real world,” said Dwaynica Greaves, lead author of the study. In particular, the researchers are hoping that future work in this space can focus on how participation in theatrical activities might help people with autism. 

This is the first time that neuroscientists have been able to record brain activity in actors during their performances, Greaves added. The actors were fitted with brain imaging technology while they rehearsed scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The researchers then proceeded to call out each actor’s name while they were performing, measuring brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. 

Their findings, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, showed that when actors heard their names while performing, their response was suppressed in the brain region associated with self-awareness. These results were consistent across the six actors who were tested during rehearsals, several times a week. While they were not performing, the actors responded normally when called by name.  

“The shout of a person’s own name is a powerful and compelling sound which normally makes the subject turn their head. It also engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain. However, our findings suggest that actors may learn to suppress their sense of self as they train in the theatre and take on a different character,” Greaves said

The study also looked at interpersonal coordination between pairs of actors, investigating whether they synchronize their bodies, heart rates and brains while performing. The researchers noticed that two actors rehearsing together had similar brain activity in the regions of the brain associated with social interaction and action planning. Their statement noted that these results were not seen in heartbeat or breathing data, revealing “specific brain systems that are coordinated during complex social interactions.”

This is not the first study to conclude actors lose their core sense of self during performances of a new character. Previous research by McMaster University noticed a significant drop in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex in theater actors who underwent MRI brain scans after performing. “Portraying a character through acting seems to be a deactivation-driven process, perhaps representing a ‘loss of self’,” the study’s authors noted. 

Another study found that our sense of self is far from static. Just imagining another person may change our knowledge of ourselves to include information about the simulated person. “[B]y simply thinking about another person, we may adapt our self to take the shape of that person,” Meghan Meyer, who led the research team, was quoted as saying. 

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In the present study, the actors were part of Flute Theatre, which delivers interactive Shakespeare productions for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders, using a series of sensory drama games. For Kelly Hunter, the Artistic Director of the company, these findings have several implications that can not only inform the company’s work with autistic individuals, but also deepen our understanding of how we communicate.

“I had always been interested in the changes that occur internally when we hear, speak and even think about our own name as well as the names of those we have strong feelings toward… Since the collaboration with UCL in 2019, I have deepened and developed the way I use the names of the autistic participants within the framework of our performances,” Hunter said. 

When actors immerse themselves in their on-screen or on-stage performances, then, their roles require them to not only perform as their characters, but also think and behave like them. However, spending considerable amounts of time thinking like another can significantly impact one’s sense of who they are. Actors themselves have noticed these changes. Benedict Cumberbatch told Radio Times in 2016 that there is a “kickback” to playing the role of Sherlock in the series. “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,” he said. 

However, drama therapy has been considered a beneficial practical strategy for improving social communication in children with developmental or learning disabilities. For example, a preliminary study found students with autism who underwent theater experiences showed significant positive changes in the development of social and language skills, as compared to the control group.

In the future, researchers at UCL aim to include both trained and untrained actors as subjects. Their recent study, admittedly, lacked a control group of people without theater training and had a small sample size of only 6 actors. Despite these limitations, the researchers remain hopeful of the possible future applications of their findings in aiding social communication, including in individuals with autism. “Our lab will continue to investigate the effects of theatrical training on an actor’s sense of self, in the hope that theatrical training could aid the development of important social cognitive abilities,” Greaves said.


Written By Ananya Singh

Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.


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