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Monday, February 11, 2013
Article: Is Affective Memory healthy? by Emily vanSonnenberg, M.A.P.P.
The Happy Actor: Emotional Memory Preparation and
Care for the Actor
by Emily vanSonnenberg, M.A.P.P.
Actors have tough jobs. Most people in the world don’t understand
just how tough the job of an actor can be.
You use your brain, heart, and soul to convey emotions. Day after day, year after year, through all
your preparations and performances, those emotions affect your well-being. Most people’s jobs don’t require these very
vulnerable and taxing components to thrive.
It must be one of your goals to be alive and well as an actor--because,
if you don’t take care of your instrument (i.e., your brain, heart, and body),
you won’t be acting for too long and, you won’t be acting to the best of your
abilities. Care for you, the actor,
becomes especially important if you use emotional memory preparation to create
a character. In this article, I want to
discuss what happens in the brain and body when a person goes back to negative
and positive memories that induce emotions, as well as how you can best ensure
your emotional and physiological well-being given your demanding cognitive and
emotional job as an actor.
Before endeavoring into my
current profession of psychology, I trained as an actor, using Constantin
Stanislavski’s emotional memory in my preparation to develop and lift my life to
the character. Now, I am a
psychotherapist, consultant, and teach Positive Psychology (the science of
happiness and human strengths) at UCLA Extension. Through all the education, research, and work
I have done in the field of psychology, I honestly and adamantly believe that
the true inception of my understanding of and compassion for human beings
became formalized through my years of acting training--specifically, using
emotional memory as part of my preparation to get into character. On the other
hand, my knowledge and understanding of the psychological and physiological
effects that emotional memory had on me--as a human being--came through my
education, research, and work in the field of psychology. The combination of these two different types
of educations helped me consider and analyze just what happens to the human
brain and body when actors “play” and prepare while using emotional memory to
activate emotions and feelings.
During my acting years, I
worked hard. Sometimes 12 hours a day, 6
days a week and that was just in class.
My peers were the same. We were
committed and passionate about the art.
We studied method and used Strasberg’s emotional memory preparation to
help us get into character. In doing
this type of work, I learned an immense amount of valuable information about
myself--both as an individual and as an actor, as well as about all human
beings. My acting peers were the same. We were eager to work, and we trained hard to
do so. Sometimes too hard. Often doing
emotional memory every single day. My
teachers were masters who had been trained at the Actors Studio in New York,
utilizing the technique as actors and teachers for many years. Back then, I
didn’t know what the effects of my emotional prep work and performances had on
human well-being, and I’m not sure my acting peers or teachers knew
either. Over the course of my years as
an actor, I witnessed many breakdowns--out of class--that my peers had. And, I noticed changes in my own self--some
of which led me to realize that acting was, as they say it, “not in my
blood”. For those of you who have it in
your blood--and know that acting is your calling--I have the utmost respect for
your courage, perseverance, creativity, and hope. All of those strengths of character are
needed to endure what is a very challenging career--one abundant with high
highs and low lows. And, in that
process, it is important to inform yourself of how you can take the best care of
yourself given that your job of using your emotional brain and body do have
long-term effects on your psychological and physical health, well-being, and
That is what this article is
about: caring for you, the actor, when you’re high and when you’re low--and
even, during the in-between. How can you care for yourself, the actor,
when using emotional preparation?
Let me begin by saying that, much of the reason the great actors are so
great is that they have the most robust ability of self-control. They are
incredibly emotionally intelligent--about their own Self. They know when
to turn on and how, as well as when to turn off, and how. At the end of this article, you will learn
about a few ways you can intentionally turn on the ability of self-control and
create the emotions that serve to facilitate your optimal well-being.
Firstly, it’s important to understand how the
brain and body function in the short and long-term regarding positive and
negative emotion states. To
function--and function optimally in life should be the goal. Simply surviving is not good enough. In the medical and psychological fields,
there is a continuum of health and it
falls on a spectrum ranging from -10 (disease/mental illness) to 0
(functioning) to +10 (health/mental health).
The goal of most humans is to function on the positive end of that
spectrum (0 to +10). Look, we know that
human beings can survive most situations, though to live a deeply satisfying,
meaningful, and healthy life we must know how to best care for ourselves. As an actor, you wholly understand that your
body is the instrument by which you can walk, talk, breathe, feel, love, hate,
forgive, etc. Within this miraculous
instrument we call the human body, is the human brain--just as important as the
body is to functioning--and, functioning optimally. In order to function optimally, a human being
must understand the bi-directional relationship between the brain and the
body. When it comes to acting, actors
must understand this even more--for, it is the job of an actor to convey
emotions and elicit feelings in the human body--and this is achieved through
the use of cognitive processes. Some of
these processes can be dangerous. Using
emotional memory preparation can be dangerous--if you don’t understand how the
brain and body directly affect one another--and thus, your overall happiness.
One way in which actors aim
to convey emotions in the body so to elicit feelings is through using emotional
memories in their prep work. Emotional
memory is a cognitive tool devised by Stanislavski in his work with Ribot, a
French psychologist. It is used in Strasberg’s
“Method” acting processes. During this
process, emotional memory is the psychological act of consciously deciding that
you are going to enter into a process that is designed to strip your logic and
armor--thus, placing yourself in a creative and sometimes unconscious or
semi-conscious state that may include direct connection to emotions and
impulses. When in this state, you are no
longer governed by the intellectual capacities of your brain. The regions of your brain that are activated
when in this memory reside in locations known as the hippocampus and
amygdala. The hippocampus is responsible
for storing memories--and the sensory recognition that comes with memories
(smell and music, to name a couple); the amygdala is responsible for access to
emotions (e.g., euphoria, love, rage, anger, humiliation, etc.). The two locations are deeply interconnected. When you access memories in the brain, it
creates emotional reactions. The emotions
and impulses that arise when an individual recalls a memory are powerful--and
ignite reactions in the body that can be involuntary and unconscious. When using emotional memory, an actor conveys
the emotions and feelings of the character using his own brain and body. And, emotional memories and their subsequent
emotional states that they induce are in no way independent of physiological
effects. Some of these effects can cause
harm--if they are traumatic enough or if they are recalled and practiced
habitually. Just because you are giving
this up to a character, it does not mean that your brain and body are not
feeling the emotion that has been elicited by the memory. The character would not exist without your
body; therefore, you must consciously aim to take care of yourself--the human
being and actor--given the emotions you are choosing to feel for your character
and your job.
Many of the greatest actors
have used and use emotional prep when developing a character. Just because they are great actors, does not
necessarily mean that they are psychologically healthy individuals, even though
some may be very healthy. There are all
too many examples of actors who used emotional memory, and became victims of
the deleterious effects that re-living these emotions can generate within the
actor. The question arrives that must be
answered: How can I, the human being,
care for my brain, mind, and body while using emotional preparation as an
Negative and Positive Emotions
Researchers have discovered
that the ratio of positive to negative emotions felt inside a human being is
directly proportional to their own, subjective reports of happiness. What has been discovered is that three positive
emotions equal one negative emotion. In
other words, for you to feel “good enough”, you had better feel at least three
positive emotions if you feel one negative emotion. The reason for this seeming imbalance for
what is needed to feel a minimal amount of goodness is simple: negative
emotions are felt more deeply, longer, and have a greater impact on the brain
than positive emotions.
As an actor, you are
constantly “playing” with your emotions.
And, even though you may be acting, you are still registering these emotions
and how they feel--inside your own brain, as well as your body. To convey the point even further, I will
provide you with the following surprising finding: when you sleep and dream,
the brain is unconsciously experiencing everything you dream--and, the brain
believes that the dreams are happening in real life. Thus, your body and brain are affected by
what you think and feel in your dreams.
The same is true in real life. What you choose to think and feel affect the
brain, which affects the body, and this in turn affects the brain once again. And, what we know from hundreds of studies is
that feeling high levels of positive emotions like love, kindness, compassion,
awe, and gratitude can profoundly benefit relationships and enhance your
well-being. Likewise, the experience of
negative emotions can spiral a person downward.
Repeated Action and Habit
As an actor who uses
emotional memory prep for a character, your job requires you to repeatedly and
intentionally go into your brain, to dig up a memory and then feel the emotions
that flood in. Even though you are
lifting these emotions to character, you are still using your brain, your body, your instrument.
The effects--both positive and negative--will be felt by you, the human being. Thus, learning how to manage these effects
and take preventive, healthy measures are crucial to your mental health and
You may ask, What happens when I feel an emotion
repeatedly? When you use emotional
preparation--repeatedly experiencing the same negative emotion over and over
and over--don’t kid yourself, your body and brain are being changed
internally. Scientists know that the
human brain is plastic--meaning, its neural pathways and synapses can change
which are due to changes in behavior, environmental and neural processes, as
well as changes resulting from bodily injury.
When an emotion is felt, synapses in the brain fire and the brain and
body process these emotions in a way that is unconscious to you. If the emotions are positive, you will feel
the benefits. Likewise, if the emotions
are negative, you will feel the adverse effects. If you feel these emotions only once, their
long-term effects rarely last--unless it was a peak-like or trauma experience
(which, beware: is often what is used in emotional memory preparation
work). If you feel these emotions
repeatedly (especially if they were traumatic), your brain begins to learn new
ways of functioning. All of this happens
involuntarily and out of your awareness--and, it can have detrimental effects
on not only the brain and your emotional state, but also on your body. Repeated recall of a trauma or negative
event can cause the brain to begin thinking from that perspective and with
those emotions, given that the repetition has created new neural pathways.
Scientists know that learning
something new takes repeated practice for most human beings. And, to make a behavior or state of mind a
habit, it must be repeated daily. For a
new and simple behavior to become a habit takes approximately 21 days. For more complex thought patterns and
behaviors, a new habit can take many months before it takes shape unconsciously
in your daily life. This is important in
the case of emotional memory preparation and the negative emotions that you
“play” with--for, if you feel them repeatedly for a long enough period of time
when preparing and playing a character, they most certainly will have
detrimental effects on your psychological and physiological well-being, as well
as your levels of happiness.
The Effect of Positive Emotions on the Brain, Body,
The following findings are
ones researchers have uncovered about positive emotions and their effects on
the brain, body, and happiness levels.
These findings are important to consider when doing emotional
preparation work and caring for you, the actor--so you can be the best actor
and happy and healthiest individual you can be.
→ Positive emotions
solve problems concerning personal growth and development.
→ People who feel
positive emotions are found to be more creative.
-speeds the recovery from the cardiovascular aftereffects
of negative affect
-alters frontal brain asymmetry
-increases immune function
→ Frequent positive
-resilience to adversity
-lower levels of cortisol (cortisol is the stress
hormone; high levels of cortisol = high levels of stress)
-reduced inflammatory responses to stress
-reductions in physical pain
-reductions in stroke
→ Good, positive
feelings predict how long people live: there is a clear link between frequent positive affect and longetivity
→ Positive emotion
increases intuition and attention.
→ Experiencing a
positive emotion leads to states of mind and to modes of behavior that indirectly prepare an individual for later hard times.
→ Positive emotions
broaden an individuals momentary mindset,
and by doing so help to build personal
eliciting joy in you through a picture or video (as compared to eliciting pain
or sadness) produces a broader way of thinking about a situation or
circumstance. The big picture is seen, as opposed to narrow focus on a
→ People who feel
good are more likely to think creatively, integrate information well, be flexible, and make themselves open to new information.
→ Positive emotions
have enduring effects--and lead to the discovery of novel ideas, actions, and social bonds.
→ Positive emotions
build physical, psychological, and social resources that lead to long-term improvements in health.
good--through feeling positive emotions--makes people more optimistic,
resilient, and socially
How to Care for Yourself, the Actor
There are numerous ways you
can care for yourself, the human being, each day when doing this kind of
emotional memory preparation work. In
addition to what you already do, there may be some useful scientific tools that
have been found to induce and increase the presence of positive emotions inside
you. These tools are simple and quick to
apply into your daily life, and have been shown to produce tremendously
beneficial effects. It is so important,
given the nature of your job when using repeated emotional memories that may
not be healthy to feel over and over again, to make the conscious, intentional
choice to commit yourself to creating positive emotions inside yourself every
day. Your mental and physical health
will benefit from the disciplined practice of seeking to induce positive
emotions into your daily life. Remember
that 3:1 ratio. You need three positive
emotions to one negative emotion to feel pretty good; five positive to one
negative will be even better. Therefore,
the likelihood that you are recalling negative emotions in your emotional
preparation work is high, so take the time to take care of you--yourself, your
instrument--so you can act and be the best, most healthy and happy person you
Tools to Increase Positive Emotions
Get a journal that you devote
to Gratitude. Each night before bed (or
upon waking each morning--whichever works best for you), write down three things
(or more, if you feel compelled) that you are grateful for that happened in
your day. They can be big or
small--whatever you feel lucky and grateful to have to be able to be
alive. Studies show that the effects of
doing this can be life-altering for up to six months if done for one week, and
life-changing if practiced indefinitely!
*Retrospective Savoring: Use
that fine-tuned skill of yours to recall memories that are positive. Go through a photo album you made and re-live
the positive experiences with another (this is really fun!) or on your
own--savoring every detail that made the experience so fun.
**In-the-Moment Savoring: To
savor in-the-moment, make the most out of the present. Try this by selecting an activity (it could
be your favorite meal, a dip in the ocean, listening to your favorite song,
enjoying the presence of a close friend) and engaging it in it fully. Activate all your senses--appreciating the
smell, taste, vision, touch, and smell of the experience. These savoring activities have been shown to
increase positive emotions in significant ways.
Volunteer to help an
individual, family, or organization once a month (or, once a week, if you are
able). Even just one hour of your time
devoted toward helping another has been shown to produce profoundly positive
emotions and feelings of meaning in individuals. Studies show that spreading kindness not only
affects the person you directly help, but then that person becomes kinder to
others (up to four degrees of separation).
Increasing your kindness increases your positive emotions!
Watch a 5-minute video clip
of your favorite stand-up comedian or comedy skit. Humor is a positive emotion, and is powerful
in its discovered function to create more energy in a tired person--especially
when the person has been working hard.
Emily vanSonnenberg, M.A.P.P. is a psychotherapist, teacher, and consultant specializing in Positive Psychology. For information about private consultations, email: firstname.lastname@example.org