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April 25, 2007, 7:30 PM

Acting and Mirror Neurons

Participants: Blair Brown, Vittorio Gallese, Joe Grifasi, Robert Landy, Adam Ludwig (moderator), Tom Vasiliades

This roundtable will focus on the actor's craft as it relates to the phenomenon of mirror neurons. A recent discovery in the brains of primates, mirror neurons are special neurons that show activity both when a subject performs an action and when it observes the same action performed by another. Some scientists consider mirror neurons one of the most important findings in neuroscience in the last decade, in part because they are thought to be responsible for the empathic response in humans. In particular, these neurons allow a person to empathize with someone who is having a traumatic experience. How does this adaptation come into play for an actor? Actors must draw on various sources—memory, imagination, observation—to elicit their own deep emotional responses. This emotional activity must have a level of authenticity, on a physiological and even a neurological level, in order to provoke empathy in the observer, whether it's another actor or a member of the audience. Drawing on the perspectives of neuroscience, drama therapy, kinesiology and acting technique, the discussion will address the mechanisms that allow the actor to move an audience emotionally.

Blair Brown is a graduate of the National Theater School of Canada and began her acting career as a member of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. She went on to star in Joseph Papp's production of The Threepenny Opera and the Brodway productions of The Secret Rapture, Cabaret, The Heidi Chronicles, and A Little Night Music, as well as The Comedy of Errors at the New York Shakespeare Festival. She won a Tony Award in 2000 for her work in Copenhagen. She has been featured in the films The Paper Chase, Altered States, Stealing Home, Continental Divide, The Astronaut's Wife, Dogville, The Sentinal, and The Treatment, among many others. Her extensive television credits include appearances on "Law & Order," "Smallville," "Ed," "CSI: Miami," "ER" and a four-year run as the title character on "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd".

Vittorio Gallese is Professor of Human Physiology at the University of Parma, where he teaches cardiovascular physiology and neurophysiology in the School of Medicine. He also teaches neuroscience in graduate program in Philosophy of Mind at the University of Bologna. His main research interest lies in the relationship between action perception and cognition and has published several papers about mirror neurons.

Joe Grifasi is an actor and director. He has performed on Broadway (Dinner at Eight, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Happy End, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Play's the Thing) and in numerous Off-Broadway productions, including Boys Next Door (Drama Desk Nomination). He has appeared on stages throughout the country, including the Goodman Theater, Trinity Rep, Yale Repertory Theater and the Williamstown Theater Festival. He has been featured in over 70 films, including The Deer Hunter, Batman Forever, Matewan, Splash, Natural Born Killers, and Ironweed. He appeared most recently as Yogi Berra in the ESPN mini-series The Bronx is Burning. He is a graduate of the M.F.A. program at Yale.

Robert J. Landy is the Founder and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at New York University. He is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of The Arts in Psychotherapy and the author of numerous books on the subject of Drama Therapy.

Adam Ludwig is an actor and a member of the Philoctetes staff. He edits the Philoctetes website and the newsletter, Dialog. He has performed at regional theaters throughout the country, including Berkeley Rep, The Old Globe, The Pittsburgh Public, and A.C.T. He has appeared on television and in film and most recently played one of the leads in the Off-Broadway comedy Jewtopia. He has an M.F.A. in Acting from the American Conservatory Theater.

Tom Vasiliades is an internationally recognized teacher of the Alexander Technique. He is the Founder and Director of the Alexander Technique Center for Performance and Development. He is an Assistant Professor and Chair of the Movement Department at the New School for Drama. He is also on the faculties of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and The Juilliard School. He has acted on stage and in films and television. He also works as an Alexander Technique and movement coach on and off Broadway.


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Discussion Board

This forum allows for an ongoing discussion of the above Philoctetes event. You may use this space to share your thoughts or to pose questions for panelists. An attempt will be made to address questions during the live event or as part of a continued online dialogue.
Rebecca Gremore says:
I knew as soon as I read about mirror neurons that someone in the performing arts would make this connection. Mirror neurons appear right now to be the most likely hardware for the shaping of identity (species, sexual, cultural) in an intricate imprinting process that appears to continue throughout our lives to varying degrees. The gene activation/dendritic growth and pruning process is being studied in animals by neuroethologists such as Hans Joaquim Bischof who view it as a type of learning process. ( Lest someone object to this as an over generalization, remember Nobel laureate Eric Kandel discovered the fundamentals of learning and memory using a snail.) We are particularly receptive to this imprinting in our infancy and toddlerhood from our primary objects as we learn we are human (ask any feral child). As our world expands in the teens through age 25, we are looking to our peers to tell us who we are and what to feel. That's why teens drive the music industry and the fashion world. Theater is just a subset of the myriad interactions that stimulate the mirror neurons. The interchange between the actor and the viewer can resonate or repel, or worse - do nothing- a flop. The audience sharing this experience has a secondary mirroring function with the individual viewer of validating the emotion perhaps by some resonance of the mirror neurons. No doubt it is because of mirror neurons that Forest Whitaker said the following in his acceptance speech for Best Actor:
..when I first started acting, it was because of my desire to connect to everyone. To that thing inside each of us. That light that I believe exists in all of us. Because acting for me is about believing in that connection and it's a connection so strong, it's a connection so deep, that we feel it. And through our combined belief, we can create a new reality.
Forest may speak more truth than even he realizes in terms of creating a new reality.. Eric Kandel prognosticates about being able to someday find what exactly it is that changes in the brain insofar as psychotherapy works. We are talking here about people who are trying to change..create a new reality for themselves. Think of the techniques that have worked with suicidal borderlines such as dialectical behavior. DBT involves teaching cognitive skills with validation of the emotion and unconditional acceptance. Again, feeling that connection, no doubt the same drive that motivates Forest and which is quite likely wirelessly hardwired via mirror neurons.
Glenna Batson says:
E.M. Forster wrote "Only connect." Our connection as human beings manifests in many ways, but certainly as deep kinesthetic resonance now made visible through brain mapping studies and neuroimaging. We do not live for or by ourselves alone, but in an amazing enmeshment of connectivity that ensures the survival of embodied cognition. The phenomenon of direct perception, of "mapping" others' actions onto our own motor system, is further fuel for dismembering mind-body dualism. Further, the discovery of the mirror neuron system has far reaching implications for understanding a range of cognitive phenomena such as the through line between attention and action and emotional attunement , both for persons with intact brains and those with brain lesions. In my coaching of actors, I often can "see" the physicality of their thought patterns as they speak their monologues, and am able to coach them through this kind of "mindreading" that I know issues from the activation of this neuronal network. In my work with persons with neurological disorders, for example, I can see the power of imagining, mimicing, and imitating in reactivating neuron pathways rendered silent by stroke.
As evocative as the discovery of the mirror neuron system is, it also has its provocative side, and deserves critique, particularly as we consider issues of neuroethics. I look forward to further dialogue with the panel and audience.
Glenna Batson

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