What Is Acting?

When actors take the stage and deliver a captivating performance, they engage not only their physical abilities but also their mental processes. Similarly, as audiences watch a great performance, they experience a range of cognitive and emotional responses. In this article, we will delve into the scientific mental processes that both actors and audiences experience when watching a great performance.

A Girl and Boy Acting Together

Complex & Multi-faceted

For actors, performing on stage is a complex and multifaceted task that involves a number of mental processes. One of the key mental processes that actors engage in is the creation of a character. Actors must use their imagination to craft a character that is believable, compelling, and distinct from their own personality. This requires a deep understanding of the character’s motivations, beliefs, and behaviors, which can only be achieved through careful research and rehearsal.


Another mental process that actors engage in is memory. Whether performing a monologue or delivering lines in a scene, actors must memorize their lines and blocking. This requires them to use their working memory, which is the ability to hold information in mind for short periods of time, in order to recall the lines and movements on stage. Additionally, actors must also use their long-term memory to recall information about their character and the script, which helps them stay in character and make believable choices.

In addition to the creation of a character and memory, actors also engage in mental processes related to emotional regulation. Acting often requires performers to tap into and express intense emotions, which can be challenging and even overwhelming. To manage these emotions, actors must use their emotional regulation skills, which involve the ability to control and modulate their emotions in response to different stimuli. This helps actors stay in character and deliver a consistent performance, even in the face of unexpected events or audience reactions.

Audience Reaction

As for the audiences, watching a great performance involves a range of mental processes, including perception, attention, and empathy. Perception is the process by which we make sense of sensory information, such as what we see, hear, and feel. When watching a performance, audiences use their perception to make sense of the actors, their movements, and the set design. Additionally, audiences also use their attention to focus on the performance, filtering out distractions and giving their full attention to the actors on stage.


Empathy is another important mental process that audiences engage in when watching a performance. Empathy involves the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of others, and it plays a critical role in the connection between actors and audiences. When actors deliver a powerful performance, they can evoke strong emotions in their audience, which can result in a deeper connection and engagement with the performance.

One of the key factors in the emotional response of audiences to a great performance is the involvement of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that are activated both when we perform an action and when we observe someone else perform the same action. This allows us to understand and empathize with others, which is critical for creating an emotional connection with a character in a performance.

Mirror Neurons

When actors perform, they activate their mirror neurons, which in turn activate the mirror neurons of the audience. This creates a direct connection between the actor and the audience, allowing the audience to experience the emotions of the character in a much more vivid and intimate way. For example, when an actor portrays a character experiencing sadness, the audience’s mirror neurons activate, allowing the audience to empathize with the character and feel a sense of sadness themselves.

This empathetic response is crucial for creating a powerful and engaging performance. When an audience feels a deep connection to the character and the story, they are more likely to be moved and impacted by the performance. This is why great actors are often able to create a strong emotional response in their audiences, even in relatively simple or straightforward performances.


In addition to empathy, the scientific phenomenon of mirror neurons plays a significant role in creating an empathetic response to a character’s story. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that are activated both when an individual performs an action and when they observe the same action performed by others. This mechanism is thought to underlie our ability to understand and empathize with the experiences of others.

When watching a performance, mirror neurons are activated as we observe the actors on stage and their actions and emotions. This activation allows us to experience the emotions of the characters, even though they are not our own, and to feel as if we are a part of the story. This in turn contributes to a deeper connection with the performance and an increased empathy for the characters.

Moreover, actors can use their knowledge of mirror neurons to enhance their performances and evoke stronger emotional responses in their audiences. By performing actions and emotions that are easily relatable and universal, actors can activate mirror neurons in their audiences, allowing them to experience the emotions of the characters in a more intense and personal way.

Acting as Mental Process

In conclusion, the scientific mental processes that both actors and audiences experience when watching a great performance are critical to the success and impact of the performance. Actors engage in a range of mental processes, including the creation of a character, memory, and emotional regulation, while audiences use their perception, attention, empathy, and memory to connect with and appreciate the performance. Whether you are an actor or an audience member, understanding these mental processes can deepen your appreciation and understanding of the art of performance.

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