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Monday, February 11, 2013

Article: Is Affective Memory healthy? by Emily vanSonnenberg, M.A.P.P.

Emily vanSonnenberg, M.A.P.P.
UCLA "Happiness" class - Creator & Teacher 
Positive Psychology News Daily, Author

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 life satisfaction.

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.

The Continuum
 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.

The Brain-Body Relationship
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 actor?

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 well-being.

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, and Performance
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.
Regarding physical health, inducing positive emotions:
-  speeds the recovery from the cardiovascular aftereffects of negative affect
-  alters frontal brain asymmetry
-  increases immune function
Frequent positive affect predicts:
-  resilience to adversity
-  increased happiness
-  psychological growth
-  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 resources.
Intentionally 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 problem.
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.
feeling good--through feeling positive emotions--makes people more optimistic, resilient, and      socially connected.

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 can be!

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:

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