What Goes on in Actors’ Brains?

Here’s a really neat article and video about what goes on inside actors’ brains when they’re performing. The video is especially compelling.

Scientists at London University put actress Fiona Shaw into a brain scanner and had her do two things. They had her perform selections from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. To contrast, they had her count numbers to see what difference, if any, was taking place in her brain.

Lo and behold, there was a significant difference between acting and reciting by rote:

In addition to all the parts of the brain associated with motor skills, like moving the tongue or lips, she used a part of the brain associated with analyzing or doing a complex transformation of a visual image. If I told you to imagine the figure 8, turn it through 90 degrees, and then think of it as a pair of glasses “” that’s the extra part Fiona was using when she was performing the text.

It makes me think about what happens in my brain when I’m acting. While we all strive to be in the moment at all times, I sometimes catch myself drifting off into thinking about dinner, or the laundry, or errands that have to be run after the show. That’s not good. And that’s clearly not what Shaw is thinking about here. She’s fully committed to the text. This is an extraordinary accomplishment seeing as she’s strapped in a machine that wouldn’t be out of place in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For you actors out there – what do you suppose goes on in your brain when you’re performing?

Check out the article and video here.

About the author

Craig Mason