Here’s how actors differ in their ability to read their own bodily signals

By Emma Young

How is it that some people can slip into another character so perfectly that they win acting plaudits, while the rest of us struggle to act at all?

Good actors have to convincingly convey a range of emotions. And one way that we feel and control our own emotions is by tuning into bodily signals — such as the more rapid heartbeat that comes with excitement, joy or fear. So, reasoned Peter Sokol-Hessner at the University of Denver and colleagues, perhaps actors are better at sensing these signals — a process known as interoception.

For their study, published in Emotion, the team recruited a total of 26 current and former graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Acting Program plus a group of 11 other people with extensive acting experience. The control group consisted of 29 people with none or very little acting experience.

The participants were fitted with ECG electrodes, to monitor their heartbeats. In each trial, they were played 10 tones. The researchers controlled the timing of the tones, so that they were either in-sync with the participant’s heartbeat, or out of sync. The participants were not allowed to feel for their pulse during this time; instead they had to try to sense or guess whether the tones were in or out of sync. This task measured their “interoceptive accuracy”. They also had to report on how confident they were in their answer. This assessed their metacognitive awareness of their accuracy. Each participant completed 160 trials.

The results were clear: non-actors were just as good at actors at judging whether the tones were in or out of sync with their heartbeat — they had very similar levels of interoceptive accuracy. But actors scored better on metacognitive awareness: on trials when they indicated not being confident in their answer, they were indeed more likely to be wrong, but when they were confident, they were more likely to be right. This result fits with earlier research finding that interoceptive accuracy and metacognitive awareness of this are separate constructs. Earlier studies have also found that people who are better judges of their inner sensing accuracy have richer emotional experiences, feel more empathy and are better at regulating their emotions. So actors’ better metacognitive awareness might indeed help them to better create, express and convey emotion.

The team also looked at the Tisch actors’ academic scores on various aspects of acting. And they found that those who’d got better scores for Mimicry (copying a posture) and Movement (navigating obstacles without knocking them over) had better metacognitive scores. This suggests that perhaps, among actors, better awareness of inner sensing accuracy aids better acting (or at least aspects of acting; the team did not find a link between metacognitive ability and scores on Audition, an overall evaluation of their acting performance). However, the sample size in this analysis was only 19. As the researchers note, this should be considered a preliminary result.

A bigger question is: what explains the difference in metacognitive awareness of interoception between actors and non-actors? Is this the result of their acting training — or were they like that to start with?

To try to address this, the team explored whether there was a link between the duration each individual Tisch actor had studied at the school and their metacognitive ability. There wasn’t. This suggests that acting training did not explain their better scores — but, rather, superior metacognitive awareness helped them into acting. However, time spent at grad school didn’t capture participants’ lifetime experience of acting training and practice, so these results should be considered tentative. It would certainly be worth exploring this further, though — if elements of acting training can in fact enhance metacognitive awareness, perhaps this training could help to improve the emotional lives of other people.

For now, though, when it comes to the interoceptive abilities of actors vs no-actors, “these data establish for the first time that there is a quantitative, objective difference in the first place,” the team writes. And that’s certainly an interesting finding in itself.

The actor’s insight: Actors have comparable interoception but better metacognition than nonactors.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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