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Tough Act to Follow

by Priyanka Nanayakkara

art by Caitlin O’Neil

As pieces of glass shattered on the stage floor, my palms began to sweat and my heart raced while tears pooled in my eyes. For my role as Bielke in Fiddler on the Roof, a musical that follows a Jewish family living in imperial Russia, I had to imagine myself in a different cultural, socioeconomic, and religious background than my own. I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a society where you wake up every day with the threat that you may be killed. Without ever experiencing anything so traumatizing, it felt impossible to portray this character accurately. How can actors be expected to display emotions and experiences they have never faced themselves?

What are Empathy and Theory of Mind?

One study in social and developmental psychology suggests that empathy allows actors to understand and portray characters [1]. There are two independent forms of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy refers to one’s ability to reflect and share another’s emotional feelings; cognitive empathy allows one to understand others’ mental state or cognitive state—their state of mind and thought processes which aid in decision-making [2–4]. To understand and experience the feelings of characters, actors must first be able to recognize the characters as human beings and reason about their mental states. Over the past few decades, several theories have developed to explain how individuals can distinguish their own emotional state from those of others [5]. One component of empathy is the ability to infer and interpret others’ intentions and beliefs, regardless of our own feelings. This ability is commonly referred to as Theory of Mind (ToM) [5, 6].

The distinction between empathy and ToM is highly debated among psychologists. In this article, Theory of Mind is defined as a necessary component of empathy. In order to use one’s own life experiences to draw conclusions on other people’s affective and cognitive states, a person needs to understand that other people have different mental states than their own. ToM does not rely on one’s own experiences to understand someone else’s, which allows you to maintain your own emotional state while feeling for someone else’s emotional state. With empathy, you call upon your own emotional experiences in order to understand how others feel in a given situation.

The mental processes that mediate empathy and ToM share some overlapping neural networks but diverge in other areas. The temporoparietal junction, temporal poles, and the anterior medial prefrontal cortex are activated with both ToM and empathy [7]. These regions are specifically involved in social cognition: the process of using linguistic, auditory, and visual cues to communicate emotional information [8, 9]. When implementing ToM in acting, the frontal poles—located at the very front of the brain—and temporal poles—located at the very tip of the temporal lobe and responsible for emotional action regulation (emotions associated with social behavior)—are stimulated [7, 10].

Empathy and Theory of Mind in Acting

As an actress, directors always taught me to empathize with the character. In my role as Bielke, I needed to recognize both the affective and cognitive states of the character. Not only did I infer how Bielke would feel in the situation, but I also used the fear she felt to make decisions on stage. For example, Bielke’s fear could cause her to be skeptical around people other than her family members. While portraying Bielke’s character, I had to make sure my acting choices aligned with her emotions. When portraying Bielke interacting with her family members, I would loosen my posture and stand closer to the actors around me to show I was feeling comfortable. However, when portraying Bielke interacting with the Russians, I stood farther away and kept myself more reserved by clasping my hands together in front of my body to close it off.

Actors often employ ToM as a way to deepen their understanding of their character’s thoughts and intentions, independent from their life experiences [5]. In contrast, when implementing the empathy perspective, the actor understands the character’s feelings based on how they would feel if they were placed in this situation. However, I realized that I couldn’t place myself in Bielke’s shoes, because her experiences with fear were so different from mine. If I couldn’t feel how she felt, how would I be able to perform this character? This dilemma made me question my own understanding of empathizing with a character and with others whose experiences are unfamiliar to me.

This dilemma is when I turned to neuroscience to understand more about what is happening inside my brain when I am empathizing with my character or other people. One of the many functions of the cingulate gyrus and amygdala is to process emotional experiences, including social cognition: the ability to understand and interact with other people’s thought processes [11]. One aspect of social cognition is carrying out the process of ToM and self-reference [11]. Cognitive empathy allows us to activate the limbic system to generate an affective state even without direct emotional stimulation [12]. Even without something that would make us feel a certain emotion, we can replicate the feeling, which is useful in acting.

How Do We “Act” in our Everyday Lives?

Acting is generally perceived from the performance perspective, but we also act in our everyday lives when we assume different roles and responsibilities [5]. Understanding how we do this helps us understand how we empathize with a character while acting on stage. Every day, I act in my different roles as a student, friend, and daughter. In these roles, I still act as myself, but I emphasize different qualities when I assume different roles. For example, I act goofier with my friends, but I am focused and studious in the classroom. I express myself differently in these situations, but my personality possesses both of these qualities. In my experience, emphasizing or modifying certain personality traits, as if I am role-playing, allows me to connect with my character and best portray them.

As children, our ability to pretend-play illustrates our ability to understand different affective and cognitive states even when our brain isn’t fully developed [5]. One study examines the correlation between a child’s inclination to imaginative pretend-play (including role-playing as fantastical beings) and their levels of empathy and ToM [13]. In this study, children ages three to five responded to the Empathy Measure for Preschoolers (EMP) test, where they read eight vignettes in which either a child or a dog was the protagonist. Then the children were asked “How does the child or dog feel about this?” and “How do you feel about this?” These children were also analyzed as they engaged with pretend play, such as imaginary phone calls and impersonating animals. The results showed that children who engaged with imaginative play from a younger age were more accustomed to sharing emotional states with others, therefore strengthening their ability to empathize. When children role-play, they exhibit the emotions they are portraying. Furthermore, they derive happiness from playing pretend, which shows their ability to even feel multiple emotions at a time, similar to how actors feel the adrenaline rush of acting while still “staying in character” [14]. A study conducted by Hashmi et al. (2020) used near-infrared spectroscopy to examine the activity of the prefrontal and posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) regions of four-to-eight-year olds while they were role-playing with dolls and playing with a tablet. It was found that the children playing with dolls had more activation of the pSTS than when playing with their tablet [14]. The pSTS is responsible for interpreting and analyzing the intentions behind others’ actions [15]. This activation of the pSTS in activities that involve role-playing, including acting, helps improve our ability to empathize, especially at a young age.

To further understand how we “act” daily and the neuroscience behind it, we can apply performance acting methodology. The Inside-out theory, created by Russian theater practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski, involves understanding the character’s thoughts and emotions, drawing on one’s experience, and then replicating the character’s emotions [5]. The actor first works to understand the character’s intentions, then interprets these intentions through their own personal lens. This process is closely related to empathy, where we use our previous knowledge to consider the feelings and thought processes of the person with which we are empathizing. In acting, you must infer the character’s intentions, and attempt to portray these intentions and thoughts with your own emotions to provide a “natural” performance. This realization was fascinating to me. When empathizing with my character, I am attempting to understand the world from someone else’s point of view while simultaneously seeing the world through mine.

What Happens in the Brain while Acting?

To understand what happens when acting from a biological perspective, it is vital to understand what happens in the brain during performance acting and how that compares to the brain regions explained above that are involved in role-playing. Brown et al. (2019) analyze the brain regions involved in portraying characters in the play Romeo and Juliet [5]. In this study, researchers asked actors questions such as “Would you go to a party you weren’t invited to?” or “Would you tell your parents if you fell in love?” The purpose of this process was to dive deeper into questions that the actors portraying Romeo and Juliet would typically answer as part of the acting process to better empathize with the character’s intentions. These questions mirror an acting methodology called the Uta Hagen Method, where actors answer a series of questions about the character and their situation, like “Who am I?”, “What time is it?”, “Who am I with?” Even if these questions are not explicitly answered in the play, it allows the actor to put themselves in the character’s shoes. The actors in Brown et al. (2019) were asked to respond from three different perspectives: the self-perspective (1P), the third-person perspective (3P) of Romeo or Juliet, and the fictional self-perspective, Fic(1P) [5]. The 1P self-perspective is where you answer as yourself from your point of view, which employs the process of mentalization—the ability to understand one’s mental state and the mental states of others. If someone using the 1P was asked the question: “Would you tell your parents if you fell in love?”, they would reflect on the question from their own mental perspective. However, if they answered this question from the 3P perspective, they would consider the character’s point of view. For example, Juliet would not tell her parents that she fell in love because she knows they wouldn’t approve of Romeo. Lastly, from the Fic (1P) perspective, one would adopt the character’s perspective as if it was theirs, representing a role change. For example, they might respond “I would not tell my parents because they are enemies with Romeo’s parents!” Often while acting, actors will think about the 3P perspective and then try to implement the Fic (1P) perspective while on stage [5].

This study used functional MRI (fMRI) methodology to measure the blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal of the brain while a participant is performing certain tasks [15].

The oxygenated-blood levels detected in a certain brain region correlate with brain region activation [15]. The results of the experiment showed a decrease in brain region activation in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) when the participants answered the questions from the Fic(1P) perspective [5]. The vmPFC is a brain region highly associated with self-perspective and how we assign personal value to self-related content to modify how we view ourselves (D’Argembeau 2013)[16]. Additionally, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC), which contains the vmPFC, is activated when reflecting on our self-experiences, including memories, distinct personality traits, attitudes, mental states, and other similar self-referential traits [16]. In a similar experiment, an actor’s sense of self was measured through their prefrontal cortex (PFC) response to hearing their own name. Six actors were asked to act out a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream while someone called their name in the background [17]. This study utilizes functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) which is similar to fMRI scanning in that they both detect blood-oxygen levels. However, fNIRS detects blood-oxygen levels through the absorption of light [18]. The results of the A Midsummer Night’s Dream study found that the PFC activation in response to hearing one’s own name was hindered while acting. This finding implies that when acting, there is a dissociation from oneself [17].

As an actor, the only experience I can fully draw from is my own. I previously believed that while acting, I was employing my own characteristics while modifying them to fit my character. However, the results from the Romeo and Juliet study and the A Midsummer Night’s Dream study show that the vmPFC, our self-perspective region, has a decrease in activity while acting. This suggests that while acting, we actually disassociate from our intentions, thoughts, and emotions and instead focus on a fictional character’s intentions, thoughts, and emotions (Brown et al. 2019)[5]. If our vmPFC is less active, is there a region of the brain that is activating to allow us to attempt to embody the traits of the character we are portraying?

According to the Romeo and Juliet study, the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), and the precuneus showed higher levels of activation during the Fic(1P) trials. The pSTS was also activated in the role-playing study, showing that similar mechanisms are involved while role-playing and acting. The pSTS is involved in understanding the intentions behind specific actions—which is precisely what actors do through the Uta Hagen method and the Inside-out method [19]. The precuneus has the most activation while answering questions from the Fic (1P) perspective [5]. It is responsible for memory retrieval, mental imagery strategies, and emotional response to pain, which are all highly implemented while acting [20]. While acting, we constantly create mental images to imagine the scenarios with which our character interacts. It also seems as though the human brain is taking a back route to empathizing while we are acting. Instead of solely focusing on our own experiences, our brain is actually activating different regions of non-self-related activity in order to recreate a character’s self-experience.

How has Neuroscience Altered my View on Acting

Acting can be viewed as a method by which we can study the neural and psychological mechanisms of empathy, since actors constantly attempt to empathize with new characters and experiences. Although I have learned through this research that when I am acting, I am not truly feeling the emotions of my characters, I still emote for them as if they were real-life people. While interacting with characters like Bielke, I dissociate from my own interests even though I am still carrying my own perspective. Because of this, it almost feels as though the act of acting is its own unique form of empathy. However, more research is needed to confirm this correlation between acting and the ability to empathize with others and experiences that we haven’t had before.


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