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This Is Your Brain — And This Is Your Brain On Acting

Gregory Maupin, Dathan Hooper, Jon Huffman, and Laura Ellis.
Bill Brymer
Gregory Maupin, Dathan Hooper, Jon Huffman, and Laura Ellis.

Louisville-based actor Gregory Maupin says there tend to be two main schools of thought for actors when it comes to getting into character.

“‘Outies’ and ‘innies,’ as it were,” Maupin said.

“There are people who deal with the mushy, emotional innards and whatever spills out is the character. Then there are people who are say, ‘Oh, if I would see this person from afar behaving this way and if I behave that way eventually that would tell that story to the audience.’ And most people do a mix, to be honest.”

Both Maupin and his wife, Abigail -- who is also an actor -- have played characters that are incredibly far-removed from their daily personas.

For example, Gregory has played Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choir director from “Our Town.” And Abigail has played the murderous Lady Macbeth.

“I was afraid of how I was going to find a connection to her or how to make her human,” Abigail said. “Finding my way into the character ended up being me just saying the words, trusting Shakespeare and she kind of grew out of that. I’m not very ‘method-y,’ I let the playwright work through me.”

This idea of actors becoming a character is something that interested Dr. Steven Brown, a researcher at McMaster University in Quebec, Canada. On Friday, he released a new study called “The Neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet: an fMRI Study of Acting.”

For this study, he had theater students at the university answer some hypothetical questions while undergoing a brain scan. In one case they were answering questions as themselves, things like, “Would you tell your parents if you were in love?”

This was used as the baseline for brain activity.

“Then in the task of interest, they would get into character -- Romeo if they were males, Juliet if they were females,” Brown said. “And then answer the question in the first person. So, ‘I, Romeo, would or would not tell my parents if I was in love.’

According to Brown, when researchers looked at the scans, they saw a reduction in certain kinds of brain activity when subjects responded in character, as opposed to responding as oneself -- specifically in the cortical midline network of the frontal lobe, parts of the brain that deal with understanding our own identity.

“That part of the brain that is involved in self-awareness of your traits, we saw a deactivation when people got into the character of Romeo or Juliet,” Brown said.

Put simply, Brown said, his research shows actors are literally able to “lose themselves” in the characters they are playing.

Moving forward, Brown said he would like to look at how actors' brains respond when they are playing multiple roles in a single show. Additionally, he’d like to study actors who use different methods of getting into character, and see whether there are any differences on the scan.  

And there's another group Brown would like to study: ventriloquists.

“Because ventriloquists have to alternate in real-time, in a conversational manner, between themselves and the character,” Brown said.

The Maupins say they aren’t too surprised by Brown’s results, that your brain works in different ways when you are a playing a character.

"[You're] definitely using different parts of the brain, especially by the time you get into performance because, by that time you have pulled so many tricks out of your bag," Abigail said.

"When it all comes together and you are actually living that person for two hours, you have to incorporate all those elements."

 You can read the full study here.

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