New research has shown that actors lose their sense of ‘self’ when they take up a character.
Experts asked theatre students to get into character before the study began.
They were then asked a series of questions and asked to respond as either themselves, a character, how they thought a friend would react, or in a different language.
Scans revealed changes in two areas of the front of the brain that are linked to a person’s sense of ‘self’.
Personality changes are often seen in patients who experience damage to this part of the brain, known as the cerebral cortex.
Adopting someone else’s perspective when answering the questions caused brain activity to drop in these parts to drop, in line with ‘losing’ a sense of self.
The 15 actors in the study were mostly theatre students, who were immersed in Shakespeare characters, either Romeo or Juliet in an acting workshop.
They then underwent MRI brain scans in the laboratory to detect how their brain activity changed when they adopted other characters, including themselves.
They were asked how they would respond to specific scenarios either as Romeo or Juliet, a friend, as themselves or as themselves but speaking in a different language.
The researchers from McMaster University in Canada detected a drop in brain activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex, when actors responded as someone else.
The change corresponded with someone thinking from another person’s perspective.
‘Portraying a character through acting seems to be a deactivation-driven process, perhaps representing a “loss of self”,’ the researchers said.
A similar brains response was detected when the participant adopted another accent, leading researchers to suggest that gestures and accents help actors stand in someone else’s shoe.
Only when the actor was in character, however, as a Romeo or a Juliet, was an additional increase detected in an area of the brain called the precuneus.
This is an area associated with mental imagery strategies, memory retrieval and environmental perception, among other functions of perception.
Dr Steven Brown, the main researcher on the study, said: ‘It looks like when you are acting, you are suppressing yourself; almost like the character is possessing you.’
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.