Act Like You Mean It: Acting, Emotion, and the Brain

As part of our event series on the Brain and Mind, join swissnex San Francisco for a five-act “lecture-performance” in which researchers explore whether, according to the brain, actors in a play express genuine emotion or just fake it. With a little help from Shakespeare and two local performers.

Event Details


swissnex San Francisco
730 Montgomery St., San Francisco, 94111 United States


June 11, 2011 from 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm America/Los Angeles (UTC-07:00)

As part of our event series on the Brain and Mind, join us at swissnex San Francisco for a five-act “lecture-performance” in which researchers explore whether, according to the brain, actors in a play express genuine emotion or just fake it.

Professional actors go through arduous training and employ diverse methodology to convey complex feelings and stir genuine compassion in their audiences. But just how far acting really goes and to what extent the body merely impersonates emotion has long fascinated scholars of the performing arts. Put simply, when actresses and actors play lovers weathering relationship ups and downs, do they really feel what lovers feel or do they only pretend? And where would scientists look to find the answer?

The question has generated debate between the arts and science for years, with arguments often revolving around the brain and the notion of emotional memory, a core element of actor training but a controversial notion in the scientific community. With its research program, “Authenticity of Emotion,” (“Echtheit des Gefühls”), the Institute for the Performing Arts and Film (ipf), at the Zurich University of the Arts has partnered with scientists to probe the idea.

Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and its DO REsearch (DORE) program, which encourages research projects in Switzerland’s Universities of Applied Sciences, “Authenticity of Emotion” teams ipf with the Institute for Neuropsychological Diagnostics and Imaging, a branch of the Swiss Epilepsy Center in Zurich. Using modern brain imaging technology, their joint research examines whether top actors use true emotion in their performances or not. The Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) tests to date, obtained from actors recalling and reciting their lines while lying in a scanner, have investigated if different acting techniques activate the key neural structures of emotional processing in different ways.

Aided by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, research heads Anton Rey (ipf) and Thomas Grunwald (Swiss Epilepsy Center) present their findings in a part scientific lecture, part performance at swissnex San Francisco in five quirky acts. Assisting them are two San Francisco-based professional actors who must run through various drills and analyses before pure theater takes over in the finale.


6:30 pm  doors open
7:00 pm  introductory remarks
7:15 pm  lecture-performance in five acts
8:30 pm  reception and networking
9:30 pm  doors close


Thomas Grunwald

Thomas Grunwald was born in 1956 in Germany and now lives in Zurich, Switzerland. He is a neurologist specializing in clinical neurophysiology and presurgical evaluations at the Swiss Epilepsy Center in Zurich. He teaches neurology at the Bonn University Medical Center and cooperates in the study of neurophysiological correlates of artistic and rhetorical communication with the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, Germany.


Anton Rey

Anton Rey, born in Switzerland in 1959, has worked as dramaturge and artistic director in numerous theaters and festivals in Germany, France, and Scotland. Since 2002, he has taught theater history and dramaturgy at the Zurich University of the Arts. In 2007, he founded the Institute for the Performing Arts and Film. He is currently editing a book series on the principles of artistic research.


Molly Benson

Molly Rebekka Benson graduated with a BA in Theatre from Oberlin College in 2001, and since then has been a working actress and voiceover artist in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Most recently she performed in the Theatreworks production of Snow Falling on Cedars and just finished wrapping the independent feature film, Women & Cigarettes. Other favorite roles include Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland with Atmostheatre, Lady Percy in Henry IV, with the Black River Theatre Company, and Anna in Closer. Molly is an avid visual artist as well as theatre artist, and has always been fascinated with psychology and neuroscience in relation to acting.


Paul Rodrigues

Paul Rodrigues has been performing on stages around the Bay Area since childhood. Some recent credits include: Oresties in Andromache (Central Works Berkley), Laughter in The Dark (The Garage Theater), The Marriage of Bette and Boo by Christopher Durang (Studio A.C.T), Emo! The Musical (Beards, Beard, Beards a Theater Company), The Oddman Family Cristwanzaakuh Spectacular (Guerrilla Repertory) The Merry Wives of Windsor (Sonoma County Repertory Theater), and a Role in the 2010 feature film Tenderloin, directed by Michael Anderson.




Photo: Myleen Hollero

Event Photos