A psychology professor named Sophie Scott put legendary British actor Fiona Shaw in an MRI machine and had her recite bits of text from her one-woman version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and, alternately, read off numbers that appeared before her on a screen. The belief was that when Shaw was acting, different parts of her brain would be active than when she was reading numbers.

Here’s what she found:

But what really excites Scott is the parts of the brain Shaw was using for the poetry “In addition to all the parts of the brain associated with motor skills, like moving the tongue or lips, she used a part of the brain associated with analysing or doing a complex transformation of a visual image. If I told you to imagine the figure 8, turn it through 90 degrees, and then think of it as a pair of glasses – that’s the extra part Fiona was using when she was performing the text.”

Scott interprets this phenomenon as follows:

This part of the brain has the funtime name infra parietal sulkus. “Interestingly, it’s not the part used by non-professionals when they try to produce a voice,” Scott says. “Actors do it in a very different way from you or me. When I started doing this research I came from a phonetics background where you break speech down, analyse it and build it up again. But professionals don’t. They’re doing something much more visceral and bodily.”

Turns out Shaw wasn’t surprised at what they found:

Indeed, Shaw had an intuition of what she did before Scott performed her experiment. “I think actors’ brains are like musicians’ in that they’ve been trained to learn enormous sections of language not by rote but by imaginative association,” she told me before going into the scanner. “You’re often in a visual architectural space in your head. In order to remember it, I need a visual image in my head.”

Are all actors like that? “Probably, yes. And people who aren’t actors certainly aren’t like that because they say things like: ‘How do you learn your lines?’ Well, you don’t learn your lines, you live in the imaginative moment and the line is inevitable in that situation.”

Live in the imaginative moment and the line is inevitable in that situation. Inevitable. Necessary. Necessity. The mother of invention.

You know what they say about great minds.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio