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What, Cognitively, Does an Actor Actually Do?

Memory, social theorizing, imagination, and empathy all go in to acting.

"Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture." — Spencer Tracy

One of the most interesting and common questions I am asked after speaking about the effects of acting training on the social abilities of children and adolescents is: "But what is it that the actors are learning?" Otherwise known as the "What is it that actors actually do?" question. From the perspective of someone who has never acted before, or from someone who has only done a school play, acting seems like the sort of thing that Spencer Tracy describes above—where all you have to do is memorize lines and try not to bump into any furniture. And certainly, memorizing lines takes up a large part of the collective imagination about acting. When conducting a "talk back" after a show—where the audience gets to ask questions of the actors—often the first question is "how do you memorize all of those lines?"

That question has been expertly answered by two psychologist-theatre directors at Elmhurst College: Helga and Anthony Noice. Over a course of a research program spanning more than 20 years, Professors Noice and Noice have found that the way in which actors engage with material—by thinking about characterization, intention and subtext underneath lines—increases their memory for the material. It is by thinking about the meaning behind the words, rather than just the words themselves, that actors are able to memorize long scenes and entire plays. And, wonderfully, they have found that this approach can help individuals who have never had an acting lesson increase their memories—including older adults. So, as a side note, the next time you need to memorize a speech, think about why you are speaking each sentence, in addition to just what words need to come out in what order.

But getting back to what an actor actually does. It's not just memorizing lines, although the techniques uncovered in the Noices' research speaks to the actor's task. Actors are in charge of creating a character from the words on a page (I am leaving out improvisational techniques for a later post I will discuss differences between scripted and unscripted acting). To do this, first the actors have to figure out what the character wants—the goals and objectives that must be achieved within the context of the play, or movie, or 30-minute sitcom. Often a script is only the bare bones of the character's objectives—just the lines the character will say, and the lines that others will say in response. From these bones the actor creates a nuanced portrait. There are then three psychological skills, specifically, that I believe help an actor create their characterization: theory of mind, empathy, and emotion regulation. Of course, other skills such as memorization, physical behavior, imagination, and paying attention to others are important, but theory of mind, empathy and emotion regulation are the critical skills.

Theory of mind is the ability to understand what others are thinking, feeling, believing, and desiring. Infants seem to have a preliminary theory of mind (see work by Dr. Renée Baillargeon and others), and children are able to fully understand other's beliefs and desires by 5 years old at the latest. But of course, this skill continues to develop as we move towards adulthood. The ability to read another's intentions and desires varies as a function of our relationship with that person, our own attention, and as some of my work has found, whether we are trained. Actors, psychologists, individuals who read a lot of fiction, and others who engage in theory of mind 'practice' can increase their theory of mind.

Empathy, as I am using it, refers to a feeling we get that is appropriate and emotional in response to someone else's emotion. This can mean being happy that your friend got engaged or feeling anger when your friend gets passed over for a promotion. The use of empathy in acting is somewhat controversial—it all depends on what technique of acting you are using to get to your character's emotion. Some actors think that you need to feel all the emotions of your character—that you need to connect them back to your own life and really feel sad, angry, or in love if you are to portray that emotion correctly. Other actors think that all that feeling gets in the way of acting, and that physical portrayal of an emotion will be enough to get it across to the audience and create a realistic portrayal (and of course, many actors will switch up how they get to their performance depending on their personal mood, the needs of the performance and maybe even the time of day).

Finally, actors must use their emotion regulation skills—whether they decide they want to feel the emotions of a character or not. Everyone comes to their job with personal emotions in hand. But, when it's your job to feel something else (or nothing else), then you have to figure out a way to control your own emotions and replace them with the emotions that are correct for your job. This is actually no different from what doctors, teachers, or salesmen must do. All must put on a "public face." The difference between actors and other professionals lies in the range of public faces each can wear: For the doctor, teacher, and salesman, a happy or helpful face is most appropriate. For the actor, his or her "public face" can be anything from murderous to purely innocent.

So, in the end, it's not just following what the director says (Stand here! Stand there! Look happy! Look sad!). Instead, actors use a host of complex psychological skills to create realistic portrayals of characters that we as a society value highly—we pay our (at least movie and TV) actors well, and hold them up as role models. Research is now starting to look at how actors use these skills, and whether they can transfer those skills to every day life. And, like previous work on memorization, if individuals who are interested in acting can learn these skills and apply them to their creation of character, perhaps individuals who have never had an acting classes can be taught some theory of mind, empathy and emotion regulation skills using the language and techniques of acting classes. There are individual variations in theory of mind, empathy and emotion regulation skills to be sure, but there are also diseases and disorders that are based on a lack of one or more of these skills—for example, there are currently several camps where children with autism (who have low levels of theory of mind) can go to learn acting skills to help their social skills. Sometimes we can find hints of treatments even in places we wouldn't look—on stage.