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What Acting Can Tell Us About Our Minds

Actors and theatre offer a window into our deepest feelings and experiences.

Key points

  • Theater actors possess a rich body of knowledge about human psychology yet their methods and ideas remain little studied by science.
  • For many years, stage acting served as a metaphor in models of the brain and behavior, especially in relation to consciousness.
  • People rarely experience a single emotion — an idea that is core to method acting, where actors take on the complex emotions of their characters.
Николай Оберемченко/Pixabay
Source: Николай Оберемченко/Pixabay

Psychologists and artists are increasingly breaking down barriers between their disciplines.

Among researchers like me who study the visual system, a large and growing subfield has emerged in the last two decades examining human responses to visual artwork and aesthetic images. Concurrently, researchers have explored literary fiction as a kind of dataset cataloguing shared and individual experiences in emotion, behavior, relationships, and personality. All of this research follows on a much longer tradition of studying music and its structure and impact in relation to auditory perception.

Studying Actors and Live Theater

But one form of art has received very little attention: live theater. Perhaps this is because actors’ performances are harder to capture in digital form than a painting, novel, or song. But even dance has received somewhat more study than theater. Despite working in the field of neuroaesthetics for more than a decade, I know of only a handful of systematic studies of how features of acting performance relate to psychological experiences in audiences or in actors themselves.

Psychologist Thalia Goldstein has done some of the only work in this area. With Paul Bloom, she has examined children's responses to realistic acting. And with Ellen Winner, Goldstein has done research where actors are invited into the laboratory to measure their feelings of empathy and their ability to understand others’ experiences (theory of mind). These are important initial explorations, and a 2021 study of feelings of empathy and pro-social behavior in theater audiences by psychologist Steve Rathje and colleagues points the way toward further explorations. But the basic psychological and neuroscientific underpinnings of how actors achieve their expressive feats on stage remain to be elucidated.

It is surprising that so little research has been focused on theater since no other art form involves such a literal transformation of one individual into another. It happens before our eyes during a performance. And its effect is heightened by the presence of the audience, who can share a gasp, a laugh, or a sigh. As we have learned during the pandemic, this experience can't be replicated online.

Method Acting

To be an actor is to invent the motivation to behave in a certain way, and then to rigorously practice a set of behaviors that align with that motivation. The process engages the actor's mind but also practically every part of their body. Adding to the challenge, an actor also typically undergoes a major psychological change as they meet and overcome some obstacle during the arc of the play.

As Goldstein and Bloom write, acting was not always this way. In ancient Greece, acting performances were more like formalized storytelling. Lead actors used stereotyped facial expressions and movements to portray but not embody emotions. It was only when method acting was invented in the early 20th century that individual actors began to really inhabit their characters. This was such a successful strategy for creating performances of relatable drama that most professional actors today receive training in something like the method acting tradition. The worldwide success of method acting alone is evidence that scientists should pay attention.

The Theater of Consciousness

Although psychologists and brain scientists have much to learn about how and why theater works, what is interesting is that stage acting has for many years served as a crucial metaphor in models of the brain and behavior, especially in relation to consciousness.

The most well-known of these theories is the “theater of consciousness” model of neuropsychologist Bernard Baars. He compares conscious awareness to a theater stage. What we experience is a performance that is presented simultaneously to a wide audience of brain and cognitive systems, each of which picks up on different aspects of the performance. Consciousness can put up almost any kind of "show" but the stage itself is limited: only a relatively small number of "actors" and ideas can be present at once.

Acting, Emotion, and Facial Expressions

Acting has not only informed fundamental models of our minds. Actors themselves have also contributed to basic research methods in psychology, such as Paul Ekman’s seminal studies of facial expressions and emotion. To study patterns of facial expressions, he needed pictures of people expressing emotion. It would not be feasible to catch humans expressing emotions “in the wild.” So he hired actors and asked them to portray single emotions like surprise, fear, or happiness. The images of actors' facial expressions that Ekman captured are still used widely in research today.

Interestingly, Ekman’s work is being reevaluated in light of discoveries in emotion science by neuroscientist Lisa Barrett (and others). It turns out that we don’t typically experience a single, isolated emotion. Nor are emotional categories universal: People from other cultures do not necessarily understand what basic emotions the actors were trying to convey with their facial expressions.

Instead, what we experience is usually made of more than one emotional category, and we may not even notice what the components are. We tend to feel emotions as a combination of positive or negative valence (roughly, good or bad) and positive or negative arousal (roughly, exciting or depressing). It takes work to scrutinize the components of our emotions, and some people are better at this than others.

But actors trained in the method tradition have known this all along. Indeed, the “emotional granularity” Barrett describes—the ability to describe the specificity of an emotional experience—is at the core of method actor training. Perhaps if Ekman had asked his actors what they really do to express emotion in performance he might have arrived at a more accurate understanding of emotion in the first place.

The Arts and Psychology

Psychologists and neuroscientists have barely begun to study actors or to understand how theater achieves its effect. And theatrical performances such as opera that combine acting with other art forms like music and dance remain totally unexplored. We have much to learn from actors and other artists that can help us develop better theories of how and why humans behave as they do.

 "Chandos portrait" by John Taylor/Wikimedia Commons, public domain
Source: "Chandos portrait" by John Taylor/Wikimedia Commons, public domain

So I will give the last word to an artist—the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges—to give us insight into what makes theater work. In a poem about Shakespeare, Borges writes:

"Shortly before or after his death, when he found himself in the presence of God, [Shakespeare] said: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one man only, myself.’ The voice of God answered him out of a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I what I am. I dreamed the world the way you dreamt your plays, dear Shakespeare. You are one of the shapes of my dreams: like me, you are everything and nothing."

Copyright © 2021 Daniel Graham. Unauthorized reproduction of any content on this page is forbidden for reprint requests, email


Baars, B. J. (1997). In the Theater of Consciousness: The workspace of the mind. Oxford University Press, USA.

Barrett, L. F. (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Borges, J. L. (2000). Everything and Nothing. In: Selected Poems. Ed. Alexander Coleman. Penguin Books.

Ekman P, Friesen W (1976) Pictures of facial affect. Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto

Goldstein, T. R., & Bloom, P. (2011). The mind on stage: why cognitive scientists should study acting. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(4), 141-142.

Goldstein, T. R., Wu, K., & Winner, E. (2009). Actors are skilled in theory of mind but not empathy. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 29(2), 115–133.

Rathje, S., Hackel, L., & Zaki, J. (2021). Attending live theatre improves empathy, changes attitudes, and leads to pro-social behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 95, 104138.

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