[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/95662?ns=guardian&pageName=Inside+the+mind+of+an+actor+%28literally%29%3AArticle%3A1309118&ch=Science&c3=Guardian&c4=Neuroscience%2CScience%2CStage%2CTS+Eliot%2CPsychology+%28Science%29&c6=Stuart+Jeffries&c7=09-Nov-24&c8=1309118&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Science&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FScience%2FNeuroscience[/img]How does an actor engage with the part they are playing? Fiona Shaw undergoes a brain scan while reciting TS Eliot to help shed some light on the mystery
'My bra! My bra! I have to take off my bra!" yells Fiona Shaw, running past me into a changing room. She sounds like Richard III after the battle of Bosworth Field: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" What a top thesp Shaw is: even when she's in a panic about her underwear she sounds Shakespearean, such is her actorly grasp of prosody.
And this is no small matter. Shaw has come to the basement of London University's psychology department to be analysed by cognitive neuroscientists. Today's experiment will find out what – if anything – goes on in actors' brains when they perform a role. "I'm sure there's some sort of muscle," says Shaw. "I'm sure I'm using the wrong word – some sort of muscle in an actor's brain which is extended."
But why does Shaw have to take off her bra? Because it's underwired. Metal plays havoc with the huge magnet used in the machine that is going to scan her brain. There have been accidents involving highly magnetised flying oxygen canisters – not here but in scanning rooms in other parts of the world.
Before Shaw is allowed into the operating room, she has to field queries from cognitive neuroscience researcher Carolyn McGettigan. "Do you have an Oyster card?" "No." Any piercings? "No." Removable dentures? "Not yet." And in she goes to the operating room, lies down on a bench that is winched up and then slowly reverses under the scanner.
Shaw has chosen to recite lines from TS Eliot's The Waste Land. She will recite two-line bursts from section two of the poem A Game of Chess. Why that section? "Because there's a shift between characters even in the middle of lines and because it's just a fantastically aggressive conversation between man and wife," says Shaw.
Shaw has acted in weirder circumstances. Two years ago she was buried up to her neck every evening, with just her head exposed, when she played Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days.
The rest of us observers cram into the room next door and watch her on a monitor. If I had a pound for every time someone said: "Rather her than me," I'd have enough for a ticket to see her at the National Theatre as Mother Courage. All we can see is her right eye, which looks – misleadingly – like a picture of terror, while the microphone strapped to her mouth makes her resemble Ving Rhames or Bruce Willis in the torture scene from Pulp Fiction.
Shaw, in her magnetised sarcophagus, intones the wife's words: "Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak / What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? / I never know what you are thinking. Think."
And then the husband's reply: "I think we are in rats' alley / Where the dead men lost their bones."
Between each couple of lines, she counts numbers on a screen in front of her face: "21, 22, 23, 24 . . ." Why has Professor Sophie Scott, the psychologist heading the experiment, decided that counting aloud should alternate with recited poetry in the experiment? "We wanted some speech that was semantically very empty but there's a grammar to it; a structure," she explains. "But counting aloud shouldn't engage emotional or memory parts of the brain in the way reciting poetry does."
The experiment is the latest in which Scott has explored the different ways our brains control our voices. "In the past, I've worked with impressionists to see what happens in their brains when they impersonate people's voices. The literature in psychology on faces is huge, but there's a lot less work on voices – partly because when we talk about speech, we go straight to focusing on language itself.
"Fiona is going to perform some lines from a text she's familiar with [Shaw performed Eliot's epic poem 13 years ago in a production directed by Deborah Warner, and will reprise that performance at Wilton's music hall in London next month]. She's conveying different people by the way they speak, and we're interested in finding out which parts of her brain are involved here."
The results will be displayed in new exhibition on identity at the Wellcome Trust. "Voices simultaneously convey a lot of different things about us," says Scott. "If you speak to someone on the phone you can tell if they're a man or a woman, roughly how old they are, roughly where they come from in the country, if they're ill, if they're in a bad mood – that's all there. But also voices change a great deal so I sound different speaking to you than if I'd just been arrested.
"I'm very interested in how we're doing that, how we're fitting our voices into different registers in different social settings. I'm starting to do this with people who vary their voices professionally. What I'd like to get at is understanding the normal variation in our voices on a minute-by-minute basis."
A few days later, Scott has the results of the scan. "I'm relieved," she says, "because Fiona was using more brain areas when she was reciting the poetry than when she was counting. I was worried that wouldn't happen."
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."
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."
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."
Of course, that's not the whole story. Sir Ben Kingsley once told me through tears that, whenever he played a role, he always had a little phrase in his head that gave him the key to a character. When he played Anne Frank's father, it was the phrase, "Make me be the best dad in the world to that little girl."
"It's not remotely intellectual, what I do," Kingsley said.
The same may be true of Shaw. Even so, there's a great deal going on inside her head. She swivels around in her chair to look at the cross-section of her brain on the computer.
"What a beautiful brain!" she says, pulling on her coat and heading off to play Mother Courage. If Scott's experiment is right, it's certainly very different from that of ordinary mortals.
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Guardian: Inside the mind of an actor (literally)
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