- The Actor, Image, and Action: Acting and Cognitive Neuroscience
Rhonda Blair has written a welcome addition to the growing number of books that use the cognitive sciences to inform scholarly and practical explorations in theatre and performance studies. Although The Actor, Image, and Action is addressed primarily to students and teachers of performance, its broadscale interweaving of prominent theories of acting and significant neuroscientific concepts will interest many academics beyond the acting studio.
As must all forays into the burgeoning field of performance and cognition, Blair's book is selective in its joining of these two disciplines. There are many competing definitions and theories of consciousness, mental representation, and emotion in cognitive science—to name only three of the more contentious areas—and the theatre and performance scholar must pick carefully among them to ensure a logical investigation and coherent conclusions. For the most part, Blair borrows from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Antonio Damasio, Gerald Edelman, Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, and other scientists who approach cognition from an embodied point of view. In brief, this approach recognizes that the ways our minded bodies live in the world fundamentally shapes how we think, how we use language, and how we perform. Blair muddies her generally embodied perspective, however, by incorporating some crucial ideas from Steven Pinker, who thinks of the mind instead as a large computer. This leads Blair to advocate a "movie-in-the-head" notion of imagination and memory that those scientists who favor embodied minding would not endorse. This is not to say that one or another idea of mental representation is necessarily "correct." Those of us untrained in the cognitive sciences are in no position to arbitrate among mid-level scientific theories. But, once we have chosen a body of theory that helps us to explain what we are examining in theatre and performance studies, I believe that we should strive to understand its assumptions and apply its ideas with consistency.
Despite this problem, The Actor, Image, and Action succeeds on two significant fronts. First, Blair demonstrates that Stanislavsky's emphasis on imagination and action, especially the focus on physical action that he developed late in his career, accords very well with the findings of embodied cognitive science. This is not because Stanislavsky got the science right; he was drawing mostly on ideas from early behaviorism that have long since been abandoned. Rather, through a careful integration of Sharon Carnicke's scholarship on Stanislavsky with the work of several scientists on mirror systems, emotions, memory, and mind-body functioning, Blair shows that Stanislavsky intuitively understood that Homo sapiens are built for intentional action. She follows her section on Stanislavsky with a rich description of other 20th-century acting theories that also work within these cognitive fundamentals, including Meyerhold's biomechanics and ALBA emoting. In the process, Blair demolishes such standard acting dichotomies as the difference [End Page 183] between remembering and imagining, and performers who work from the outside in or from the inside out.
The other major success of the book, from my point of view, is its emphasis on Damasio's notion of homeostasis for an understanding of how actors work with emotions. Damasio puts survival and homeostasis, the attempt by the mind-body to maintain life through physical and chemical equilibrium, at the center of his theory of human emotions. Internal and external stimuli constantly disrupt our equilibrium, sometimes violently, and the mind-body works to energize survival and restore homeostasis through emotions, which occasionally emerge into consciousness as feelings. Consequently, unconscious emotions are fundamental to our sense of self, to consciousness, the focus of our attention, and even to our ability to imagine and reason. The primacy of the emotions heightens the importance of the actor's incorporation of the "given circumstances" of her/his character and the performer's interplay with other actors and with the onstage environment. Physical action remains central, however, because the mind-body of the actor must create a proto-narrative in rehearsal to negotiate the homeostatic challenges...