How Your Brain Affects Your Acting

Posted on 15 August 2016

brain and acting


When thinking about how your brain affects your acting ability, the first, and perhaps most important, thing to keep in mind is that it is impossible to play an emotion. You might think this sounds strange; after all, we’ve all seen great actors laugh, cry, be joyous or get angry on screen. But the truth is, you cannot just ‘put on an act’ when it comes to expressing emotions or, at least, if you want to put on a brilliant performance. Instead, you have to actually go through that emotion, feel it and express it for it to be believable and realistic.

If you’re wondering how you could possibly invoke the feeling of fear or of falling in love on a film set with co-stars and cameras around you, that is where your brain – and how you use it – becomes your most important instrument as an actor.


Brain Basics

It’s very likely that you’ve heard of the difference between the left side and the right side of the brain. The left half of the brain is often considered to be the logical, analytical side. Whenever you complete a task which has to do with reading, mathematics or science, this is the part of the brain you are engaging. The right side, however, is the part which controls creativity and comes into action whenever you undertake an emotional or artistic endeavour.


Which Side of the Brain do Actors Engage with Most?

As acting involves reading from a script, memorising lines and taking angles and positions into account, many people make the mistake of thinking that acting must therefore be a ‘left brain’ activity. This could not be further from the truth as your brain cannot respond to verbal or written commands in this way.

If you try to simply tell your mind to act angry, heartbroken, happy, or any other emotion – that is acting with the left side of your brain and you will be setting yourself up for a poor performance. Instead of telling yourself to trigger an emotion, you must learn how to utilise your senses to invoke a truly emotional reaction in the right side of your brain.

If you’ve ever heard a piece of music and suddenly been transported back to a special night with the love of your life, or smelt a certain type of flower that put you back in your grandmother’s house as a small child, then you have experienced just how strongly our five senses can trigger emotional reactions.

All of the best method actors use this technique to engage with the right side (the emotional side) of their brain and incite senses to help them feel what their character is feeling. This is a skill that you too can learn and apply to your acting when you study ‘The Method’.


Train and Control Your Mind

In order to truly use your brain when you act, you need to learn how to control your brain and train it to use all five senses effectively. Memory plays a big part in this. By drawing on your own personal experiences, you can recreate emotions that you have felt in your life and be better equipped to feel whatever it is that your character is feeling.

Even if you are playing an outlandishly evil part that you really can’t relate to, our basic emotions stay the same. You will be able to find some empathy to how the character is feeling and how they would respond to it. The best actors use memory for this in more ways than one.

The Method teaches you to train your brain to re-experience emotions, memories and situations that you have been through in your life – even through reliving memories of specific events or people you have known.

All of this isn’t just guesswork either. A 20 year study by psychologists and theatre directors; Anthony and Helga Noice found that the way actors are able to remember so many lines of dialogue is by engaging with the emotional intent and subtext of each and every line, rather than simply trying to memorise words like a computer. Thinking about the meaning behind words triggers the right side of the brain and allows performers to memorise entire long scripts with ease.


The Actor’s Brain in Action

Another excellent example of a study which shows how the brain affects acting was carried out by Professor Sophie Cott in 2009.

Irish actress Fiona Shaw who is best known for her roles in Harry Potter and True Blood, underwent an MRI scan. While her brain was being scanned, Fiona alternated between counting out loud and reading T S Elliot’s 1922 poem, The Wasteland.

The purpose of this scan was to see what was going on physically inside an actor’s head when they were playing a part. Professor Sophie Cott came up with some very interesting results which proved something those of us who study The Method have known for some time.

Only three parts of Fiona’s brain were activated when she was counting out loud; the nerve centre which controls facial movements for speaking, the hearing section of the brain and the part of the brain which controls planning speech – all of which are on the left side.

However, when she performed dialogue from the second verse of T S Elliott’s poem, parts of Fiona’s brain in charge of controlling all sorts of body movements were activated – proving that she was thinking about doing them without realising. As well as this, a part of the mind which conjures up complex visual imagery was highly stimulated.

You don’t need to be an expert in psychology or neurology to understand that this means Fiona Shaw really was taking on the identity of the character she was playing in the poem and that this goes so much further than speaking lines and faking emotions.


Turn it into a Habit

The Method is a crucial element in finding out how to incorporate the ability to invoke emotions in your brain and recreate senses To make this a part of your natural process, it’s a good idea to start by practicing affective memory for just a few minutes every day. This is where actors re-imagine the memory of a certain situation and attempt to recall the details and emotions of that memory as best they can.

As you get into this habit you will need to increase the amount of time you spend doing it, but make sure you work it into your daily routine. Choose a time when you have a gap between activities, so that working on your affective memory becomes a regular routine and doesn’t disrupt your daily tasks.

After a while, you will find this becomes a habit which you resort to naturally, rather than a chore. This is just one small thing you can do at home, but if you are serious about committing more time to this and other method acting techniques, then perhaps you need to consider one of our weekend boot camps or year long Ultimate Acting Programme.


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