They always said theatre kids were different and now we have the science to back up that claim. Neuroscientists studied actors as they rehearsed Shakespeare and found that they may temporarily lose their sense of self while onstage. The researchers strapped the actors into wearable brain imaging hats and alternated shouting the actor’s and character’s names at random. The part of their brains associated with self-awareness didn’t respond to their own name when they were in character. But when they weren’t onstage, it responded normally. Ironically enough, the experiment took place during rehearsals for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which in itself is a play about losing one’s identity.
Neuroscientists and language experts at the University College London teamed up with the Flute Theatre, a company that puts on interactive Shakespeare productions for people with autism and their families (as seen in the trailer below). The actors wore a cap with 20 electrodes that collects signals from different areas of the brain. They also sported a full motion capture suit and a strap to monitor heart and breath rate while rehearsing.
The research, published in the open access peer-reviewed Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, also showed that acting partners shared similar brain patterns during rehearsals. Even when their heart and breathing rates didn’t match up, performing scenes together can put people’s minds in sync. The areas of the brain most affected are associated with social interactions and action planning. Future research between the scientists and theatre company will focus on the ways theatre games train the brain and will also include untrained actors as a control group.
If you’re looking to add a little more Shakespeare to your life, don’t forget that Sir Patrick Stewart read sonnets during lockdown, as did Sir Ian McKellen. Or for something less highbrow, you can always put on one of the many teen movies based on his plays.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.