Monday, December 23, 2013

Magical memory

photo by Lee Jordan
I read a wonderful piece in yesterday's New York Times that explains how "magical thinking" and belief in such fictitious characters as Santa Claus is part of normal brain development. When we are very young we start out with billions of brain cells whose connections are "relatively sparse," according to the author, neuroscientist Kelly Lambert. So our childish grasp of what is real and what is not develops over time. Dr. Lambert begins her opinion piece by recounting a time when she had to undo the damage of some early Christmas snooping. Her daughters, who still believed in the magic of Santa, wanted to know why presents from him were in their attic well before Christmas Eve. Dr. Lambert asserts that she acted instinctively, as a mother. Yet, as a scientist, she was relieved to realize later that protecting these beliefs was really OK. Because the richer and deeper our memories are, the more likely we will be able to conjure them up as visceral experiences later in life. We will be more likely to relive positive past memories if they are multilayered.  Lambert says this is because they are a special type of memory, what Washington University Professor Pascal Boyer calls mental time travel memories, or M.T.T.  "Professor Boyer describes how neuroimaging evidence indicates that, when certain events are recalled--presumably after being triggered by familiar sights or sounds--emotional brain areas are activated as well as visceral responses. You relive the feelings you experienced in the past. These recollections can be thought of as full body and brain memories."

Actors know the importance of using sense memory to trigger emotional memory, though they have probably never heard of M.T.T.  We have been utilizing this type of memory in our profession since the cusp of the 20th century. It is the only way to create an honest emotional life for a character who is not us. We do not know exactly how this character would react to the given circumstances of the world of the play. Since we only have what the playwright gives us, the big-picture outline, we have to fill in the blanks and populate every second we are onstage with a living, breathing reality grounded in past experiences. BUT we cannot substitute our own past. I have seen my acting students get really tripped up; they say, "Well, I wouldn't have acted this way" when examining a character's divergent reality. But you can't get inside the character if you are judging. So I tell them they must use their imaginations, put themselves in the character's shoes. And use their own sense memories and emotional memories to build a new reality. When my beginning acting students ask how this is done, I sometimes answer, "all theatre is magic." Now maybe I should give the scientific explanation. As Prof. Boyer would say, we use our brains' M.T.T. capacity to catapult ourselves, however briefly, into a completely different world. 

Dr. Lambert concludes her article by observing that even when they become adults, "the sight of Santa will allow my daughters, once again, to see the world as a child would, if only for a few fleeting moments." Actors get to use their storehouse of memories from childhood to the recent past over and over and over. Is it any wonder we take joy in our work? 

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