Now that the Uranium Madhouse show is over, I have had time to do a little reading. I have picked back up a fantastic book I wrote a little about previously, called Social Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.
The book explains how contemporary neuroscience is bearing out the perception that is at the heart of the approach to acting that I teach: that our most fundamental drive aims at belonging and social connection.
In one section of the book, Lieberman talks about discovering that another researcher had developed a way of being able to study the effects of social distress and rejection on subjects while their brains were being scanned in a MRI machine. The approach to doing so had been developed in meatspace first, that is, in a context that did not involve computers.
…a subject would show up and be told to wait for a few minutes. In the waiting room, two other people were already sitting, waiting for the same study. In reality, the other two people were what psychologists call confederates, which means they were pretending to be subjects and were actually working for the experimenter. One of the confederates would appear to “spontaneously” discover a tennis ball and would throw it to the other confederate, who would then toss it to the actual participant. Over the next minute or two, the three of them would toss the ball around in a triangle. However, at a prearranged time, the two confederates would stop throwing the ball to the real participant, and instead they would throw it back and forth to each other.
A digital version of the scenario was created, so that participants being scanned could “throw” a ball, using a computer, to other players (really computer-generated avatars) of the game. Again, once the game had started, and after some previously-decided amount of time had passed, the other participants in the virtual game would stop throwing the ball to real participant. In spite of the fact that the subject could not see or hear the other participants, the reactions of the subjects, who had been told their brain activity while engaging in cooperative activity with others (i.e. throwing a virtual ball) was being studied, were substantial:
After participants were rejected, they got out of the scanner, and they were taken to a room to answer questions about their experience. Frequently, these individuals would spontaneously start talking to us about what had just happened to them. They were genuinely angry or sad about what they had gone through. This was unusual for an fMRI study back then because most tasks didn’t generate personal emotional reactions. We had to pretend that we hadn’t been paying attention to what had happened in the scanner because we did not want their answers to the questions they were about to be asked to be contaminated by anything we might say.
Surprising, to say the least, that people could respond so strongly to this experience. However, as Lieberman later indicates, it demonstrates how exquisitely attuned we are to social rejection:
In the abstract, Cyberball seems like a trivial game with a trivial outcome. Two “strangers” that you have never met stop throwing a digital ball to you in the most boring game of catch you will ever play. How is this relevant to anything that matters in your life? Being included by others when playing Cyberball won’t help you get better clothes, the job, or the girl. As a participant, you get paid the same for the study whether you are included or excluded. Everything about this study seems small and insignificant . But the implications are profound— that something so small produces such dramatic effects. Our sensitivity to social rejection is so central to our well-being that our brains treat it like a painful event, whether the instance of social rejection matters or not.
In that last excerpt, when Lieberman is saying what cyberball won’t give you, he says it won’t help you get “better clothes, the job, or the girl.” This is, of course, a reference to “getting the girl”, which is the goal or outcome out of which the plots of so many movies emerge. And in fact, in class we refer to such goals or outcomes as “plot objectives”. Plot objectives are the milestones towards which characters strive: the girl, the guy, the job, vindication or clearing one’s name, revenge, etc. But what we see in Lieberman’s work points to a principle that I introduce at the first meeting of the Essentials class at Mother of Invention: “The scene is about the relationship, not about the plot”. The participant in Lieberman’s study has a very simple plot objective: to get paid for her time. But while pursuing this plot goal, she comes into contact with what she takes to be other people, who reject her. She will still get the plot goal, but will suffer some pain nonetheless, in spite of the fact she will never meet those who reject her (in fact they do not even exist.)
What this means is that as we go about our lives, making a living, finding a partner, participating in political struggles, whatever, we are simultaneously aware that every situation that we enter reflects our social viability in some way, our ability to be heard and have influence, to be seen and appreciated, to be valued in the social worlds through which we travel (including waiting rooms and virtual playgrounds). The reason the cyberball rejection can feel so powerful is not the immediate rejection by strangers on the other side of the computer screen, but because it sends us a signal about a possible problem with our overall social viability. If these faceless virtual playground ostracizers can reject us, our system reasons unconsciously, then so could others who are much more important to us, in contexts that are much more significant. During an interaction with a clerk in a store, we may notice that they wrinkle their nose after we speak, telling us we may have bad breath. This clerk doesn’t matter to us much, perhaps, but we know that bad breath can have serious consequences in other contexts, so we are likely to pick up some mouthwash or buy some gum as soon as we can. So our system, I would suggest, is wired to read rejections like the cyberball one, inconsequential as they may seem, as the canary-in-the-coalmine, an early warning that our social world is not perceiving us in a way that will allow us to get our most basic needs met, and this in turn may prevent us from engaging others in ways that will allow us to reach treasured plot objectives as well.
As actors, to be truly alive in a scene, we must be alive to the way in which our social viability is at stake in every situation that we enter. Lieberman suggests that our sensitivity to this is an adaption: because of the way that growth of our brains occurs in infancy, we are utterly dependent on caregivers for survival, so we have developed an extraordinary sensitivity to our standing in relationship to others. In our adult lives, this is a part of the fabric of who we are, so much so that we aren’t even aware of it most of the time. For actors in scenes, the temptation is always to focus on the plot goals, getting the girl or whatever, and ignore the signals coming in about our social fitness. But it turns out that tuning into our deep need for social belonging is the key to becoming fully, viscerally alive in a scene. This is motivated the introduction of the “underlying objective” by my teachers at Yale (and no it is not the same thing as the superobjective, but that’s a discussion for another time). Let the dead bury the dead, a famous man once said. Let the plot take care of the plot. Tune into what the immediate moment is telling you about how you are connecting with your world. And reap the inevitable dividends in your work.