Andrew Wood, MFA, Yale School of Drama • Essentials Online starting soon. • Call for a Free Informational Session • (323) 836-2176

the actor and the lizard brain

Famous brain scientist Paul McLean came up with a model of the brain that still has some currency today. In this model, there are three areas. The first is called the “R-complex”, so named because it is the part of the brain that resembles the brains of reptiles. It controls “the four F’s” (fighting, fleeing, feeding, and f*cking). The so-called “lizard brain” is attuned to primitive matters, matters of survival. The second portion of the brain is the portion we have in common with other mammals: the limbic system. The limbic system is the source of pleasure and pain, of maternal behaviors like nursing, and the urge to play. Finally, the “neo-cortex”, or new brain, is most developed in humans, and is the source of reason, logic, and abstract thinking.

The activities of the R-complex (lizard brain) and the limbic system are largely unconscious.

Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, in Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, writes that our five senses at any moment take in over 11 million pieces of information. Our conscious minds can handle about 40 pieces of information per second.

This unconsciousness presents a challenge for the actor: this means that an actor can be mentally alert and engaged in a scene, but his limbic system and R-brain can be disengaged, and it won’t feel at all unusual to him, since he is used to those being unconscious processes anyway. However, if the limbic system and the R-brain are asleep, those of us in the audience watching the actor will feel similarly disengaged. We will see an actor who appears to be engaged and responsive from the neck up: the portions of the anatomy that have to do with forming intelligible language, with talking and listening, may be active, but the rest of it will be inert. The truth is that when we watch something, our lizard brain and our limbic system are watching too. And if the corresponding portions of the actor’s brain are not engaged, we are likely to disengage as well.

It is common to see actors whose “limbic” or emotional system is alive and well, they are not only talking and listening but visibly “feeling” things as well, and yet, they leave us largely uninvolved. In watching them, we are aware of some kind of activity in their chests: they register emotional pleasure or pain in that part of the body (“the heart”). We recognize the range of emotions that they pass through, but we are not moved to feel with them, to empathize. This is very common. Such acting can be totally “believable” and totally uninteresting at the same time. It often suffices in television and film, where editing and musical accompaniment can compensate for the shortfalls of the actor. But it is not acting that inspires anyone, it is not acting that is particularly memorable, it does not make anyone feel more alive.

The actor whose R-brain is engaged is viscerally alive. We sense a vitality in the actor’s stomach and pelvis that we register in those regions of our own anatomy. It is in this part of the body that the four F’s actually take place (eating in the belly, operation of the legs (for fight or flight) in the hips, and the genitals for sexual activity) Our lizard brain is very attuned to the state of those around us, and when we sense that they are viscerally alive, engaged, or threatened, we come to life as well. It is this level of engagement that prompts us to say that we were “gripped” or “compelled” by an actor’s performance.

I remember, long before I knew anything about acting, being in an acting class and watching a student do a monologue from The Matchmaker. This student, I recognize now, was viscerally engaged. At the time, all I knew was that it seemed like something was happening inside her body while she was acting, in a way that seemed totally different from what went on when everyone else was acting. I don’t mean inside her body in the sense of “feelings”, but rather it seemed like there were moving parts that were moving for her but that stayed still for most people when they act. Looking back, I can now say with certainty that what I was registering was the engagement of the Pilates core, that network of muscles in the pelvis which are responsible for supporting the spine and maintaining balance.

The imperative of getting the R-brain or lizard brain active is the reason why in the approach that I teach, we attempt to understand every scene through the prism of need. If we can find a “hot” need to pursue, and truly understand the way in which we attempt to influence our world in the scene in order to get the need met, we are well on our way to waking up the sleeping serpent. And who doesn’t want to watch something in which a sleeping serpent is roused?

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