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Biology 103
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

Method for Madness: The Body's Impact on a Person's Emotions and the Ability to Express Them

Tegan Goerges

I am-among other things-an actor. As such, people occasionally ask me how I get myself to "feel" frustrated or desperate or happy or surprised or any of the other emotions I have been asked to attempt to portray over the years that I've been doing theatre. And when asked, I have had to carefully explain that what an actor does on a stage is not exactly feeling, but rather expressing feeling. That is, being able to act is not having the ability to feel emotions; it is not some kind of empathy for the feelings of others divinely distributed to some people with artistic temperaments (as much as some people-those who consider themselves actors and those who do not-might think). Acting is the craft of expressing emotions, creating with your physical self an image for an audience.

And here's the interesting part, the part that relates to myself as a student of biology in addition to myself as an actor: a lot of actors will report-the one writing this paper included among them-that the more closely an actor is able to duplicate the physical embodiments of an emotion, the more that actor can "feel" whatever emotion he or she is trying to reproduce. As best I can see it, emotions are the physical manifestations we register and associate with them. Fear is a quickened heart rate, a trembling voice, short, quick breaths, and some other physical reactions that everyone knows but cannot express easily in words, which is how our brains identify and catalog the sensation "fear". I wondered, though, if this contention was just a load of pseudo-scientific nonsense I had somehow managed to concoct from studying acting theory.

In antiquity, physicians/philosophers were convinced that physical humors controlled emotion; that emotional imbalances were directly a result of improperly balanced internal fluids. As years passed, this connection of the emotional to the physical began to fade from medical theory. It did not really reappear until the mid-nineteenth century, when physicians like William Cullen and Robert Whytt began to once again seriously research "physiological connection between emotions and disease." (1) For quite awhile, the body of research into the matter seemed satisfied with the notion that there was some connection, that emotional and physical states affected one another in some intangible and un-specific way. Human bodies and minds are mysterious and individually unique: the best most researchers could come up with were some interesting case studies, but little in the way of general, applicable theories.

In a separate field of intellectual endeavor, Stanislavsky, a Russian actor-turned-director at the end of the nineteenth century, was advising his actors to study not literature or poetry or philosophy but rather biomechanics. Emotions could be recalled by recreating the actions linked to them. "It's possible to repeat this feeling through familiar action, and, on another hand, emotion getting linked with different actions, force actor into familiar psycho-physiological states." (2) (Grammatical error his, not mine.) Stanislavsky's Method is pretty standard acting technique: you can find it in any acting textbook written since the time of his death. Only recently has there been any scientific investigation into evidence to confirm his theories (I have no idea if the scientists doing the inquiries were influenced by Stanislavsky).

Recent research into the connections between facial expressions and emotions associated with them, for example, show that while changing moods affect a person's facial expression, changing the expression also changes a person's mood. It is now thought that "involuntary facial movements provide sufficient peripheral information to drive emotional experience," (3) a theory known as the facial feedback theory. In a study where two groups were asked to rate the funniness of various cartoons while either holding a pencil with their teeth and without touching their lips (creating a smile-like expression) or holding the pencil with their lips only and without touching their teeth (frowning, as it were), the "smiling" group rated the cartoons as substantially funnier than the either the "frowning" or the control group, doing neither. (4) Autonomic changes similar to those seen with certain emotions were experienced by participants who were instructed to make certain faces; that is, changes in the circulatory and nervous systems were observed when facial expressions were altered. A suggested notion of why this is so has to do with how the brain receives oxygen: "Blood enters the brain by way of the carotid artery. Just before the carotid enters the brain, it passes through the cavernous sinus. The cavernous sinus contains a number of veins that come from the face and nasal areas and are cooled in the course of normal breathing. Thus, there is a heat exchanged from the warm carotid blood to the cooler veins in the cavernous sinus." (4) While frowning, for example, the construction of some facial muscles alters the flow of air and blood to the brain, resulting in the brain warming up. Smiling, on the other hand, widens the face and nasal passages, resulting in a more cooling effect on the brain. So Stanislavsky's suggestion to his actors that in order to better express their character's emotions they must first replicate their physical state is based in some real, if in his case intuited, science.

So why, if an actor can alter his emotions by altering his physical state, can't a person rid themselves of depression, say, by forcing herself to smile all the time? Well, not all of the physical aspects of our emotional states can be duplicated easily or voluntarily. The same way a musician masters an instrument and can then perform pieces that he has not written, an actor uses his body and voice to do the same. Some actors have better control over their "instrument" than others, just as musicians have varying degrees of skill. And just as the sound of an instrument can be drastically altered by outside influences (an electric guitar with an amplifier has a completely different sound than an acoustic guitar without one), our bodies and therefore our emotions can be altered through the use of external stimuli, such as taking an anti-depressant or losing a fistfight.

In order to be convincing to an audience, an actor need only reproduce the visible and audible manifestations of any emotional state he is trying to convey: that is, look happy, sound angry, and so on. In duplicating just the outward embodiments, small bits of the emotions can creep into an actor's mind, but ultimately, an actor is not out to feel a certain way. He or she is out to make an audience feel a certain way. A final thought on the science behind an actor's believability, and facial expressions: certain one of the forty-some-odd muscles in the face are much more difficult to voluntarily control than others. Ones that move when a person is actually smiling, and not faking a smile, for example, create subtle differences in the contours of the face, differences that the average person may notice subconsciously but not be quite able to pinpoint; the way some people can tell when they are being lied to but not be able to say just why. Experts trained in reading faces can note the differences. And yet, some people are better at controlling these less-voluntary muscles than others. By some estimates, about ten percent of the population has the ability to control some or most of these muscles: natural actors or liars whose facial expressions are extra-believable because the average person can't fake them. Woody Allen, for an example, is able to control one of the less voluntary muscles in the face used to express sadness-according to one researcher-one that moves his eyebrows up and down for emphasis as he speaks. (5) This actor/student of biology is aware that she is able to voluntarily move a few of the muscles in her face usually used to express legitimate anger, involving a slight raising of the eyebrows, tightening of the jaw, and a pulling of the ears closer to the head. Nearly anyone can learn to move their less voluntary muscles: while it is easier for some than for others, all that is required is diligence, and careful, creative observation. I guess that makes stagecraft and science fairly similar after all.

1)National Library of Medicine-Emotions and Disease, the Balance of Passions

2) Method Acting For Directors , A sort of lousy translation, but a good overview.

3), Bi-Polar Disorder: Smiling is Good For You

4) Facial Feedback Theory

5)Emotions and Smiling, An interview with Paul Ekman about his reasearch on facial expression and other fun stuff. You might try this link if the other one doesn't take you straight to the article.

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