The neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet: an fMRI study of acting

R Soc Open Sci. 2019 Mar 13;6(3):181908. doi: 10.1098/rsos.181908. eCollection 2019 Mar.

Abstract

The current study represents a first attempt at examining the neural basis of dramatic acting. While all people play multiple roles in daily life-for example, 'spouse' or 'employee'-these roles are all facets of the 'self' and thus of the first-person (1P) perspective. Compared to such everyday role playing, actors are required to portray other people and to adopt their gestures, emotions and behaviours. Consequently, actors must think and behave not as themselves but as the characters they are pretending to be. In other words, they have to assume a 'fictional first-person' (Fic1P) perspective. In this functional MRI study, we sought to identify brain regions preferentially activated when actors adopt a Fic1P perspective during dramatic role playing. In the scanner, university-trained actors responded to a series of hypothetical questions from either their own 1P perspective or from that of Romeo (male participants) or Juliet (female participants) from Shakespeare's drama. Compared to responding as oneself, responding in character produced global reductions in brain activity and, particularly, deactivations in the cortical midline network of the frontal lobe, including the dorsomedial and ventromedial prefrontal cortices. Thus, portraying a character through acting seems to be a deactivation-driven process, perhaps representing a 'loss of self'.

Keywords: acting; drama; fMRI; role playing; theatre; theory-of-mind.

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.4416659
  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.62d6b1h