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Study Finds Actors’ Brains Suppress Their Real Identities While in Character

Thor: Ragnarok: Matt Damon plays an Asgardian actor playing Loki in a stage retelling of the Thor movies' plots.

Ever see an actor who’s so swept up in their performance that they seem to embody their character? Ever had that experience yourself while performing? It turns out there’s a neurological basis for it: A new study has found that actors’ brains literally suppress their sense of self while in character.

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An upcoming issue of Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience includes a paper by researchers at University College London, who performed a study with actors at the Flute Theatre. The researchers fitted the actors with headsets that measure activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logic and abstract reasoning. While the actors performed scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the researchers called out each actor’s real name and measured their corresponding brain activity.

Normally, hearing one’s name called leads to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. However, the researchers found that when the actors heard their names called while in character, their headsets recorded a lower than average response in their prefrontal cortexes. When not performing, the actors responded to the sound of their names normally.

According to UCL’s website, lead author of the paper Dwaynica Greaves said that “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 …. We hope that this study will help us understand what theatre training does to the brain and to build new connections between neuroscientists and theatre professionals.”

What does this mean for actors and other creatives? If you’ve ever sunk deeply into another persona—whether it was while acting on stage, participating in a roleplaying game, or playing pretend as a child—then your brain activity may have changed during the experience. No wonder stepping into a role can feel so powerful.

(featured image: Marvel Entertainment)

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Julia Glassman
Julia Glassman (she/her) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been covering feminism and media since 2007. As a staff writer for The Mary Sue, Julia covers Marvel movies, folk horror, sci fi and fantasy, film and TV, comics, and all things witchy. Under the pen name Asa West, she's the author of the popular zine 'Five Principles of Green Witchcraft' (Gods & Radicals Press). You can check out more of her writing at <a href=""></a>

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