Tracy E. Bersley*
Abstract: This article explores a radical new approach to actor training through the lens of neurological body maps—specifically how touch receptors dominate and shape what is mapped in the brain. Putting touch at the center of character exploration completely reorients the dramaturgical process, creating a corporeal practice that allows thought to form around the sensory information, in the same way the brain operates. Tactile experience makes use of neurology in service of rich, layered and complex characters.
Keywords: Body-maps, actor training, neurology, touch, character
When I touch the skin of my six-year-old daughter, I am activated as a Mother. When Lady Macbeth washes blood off her hands, she is activated as a Murderer. Connecting touch to character seems obvious in these examples, and yet it is one of the last things we consider when developing character. We look to the clues in the text to support an idea of who we think the character is before embodying him or her. Wilder Penfield, a neurological surgeon, pioneered an operation in which he sawed through his awake patients’ skulls, probed the exposed brains with electrodes while being able to converse with the patients, learning what and where they felt something in the body. Penfield’s studies resulted in a clear understanding of the body maps in the brain and their correlation to the sensory input that comes through the body. For example, finger maps take up one hundred times as much cortical space as the torso map, despite the torso’s larger size, because there is a hundred-to-one ratio of touch receptors in the fingers compared to the torso. Touch receptors allow us to truly and intimately know the world around us, much more so than by sight or sound.
This disproportion of touch stimuli to sight/sound stimuli is critical to consider when looking at the practice of actor training. When developing character, actors often look to the intellectual answers that come from the playwright, the director, or their own insights, based on language and the world of the play. Only later does the body work to catch up and manifest those thoughts and ideas. In a radical new approach to actor training through the lens of neurological body maps, using touch as one’s primary sensory input can transform the route to understanding and embodying character. Touch, by allowing the body to engage, shift and move before solidifying the intellectual ideas, reorients the dramaturgical process and requires a complete trust in the inherent intelligence of the body.
As a practitioner of various movement modalities, I have been utilizing an elementary understanding of the neurological idea that there is a distinct two-way communication between body and brain: the mind’s thoughts influence the physical experience and conversely, the body’s shape and habits influence the mind’s belief about self (Cuddy 2015: 199-207). From this fundamental point of view, we make many deductions about how to develop character. For example, we may fold our shoulders forward using our arms and hands to cover our heart if playing someone shy and guarded. The simplicity of changing our posture may help us look a little more like someone else, and perhaps even get us to think and feel another way. But neuroscience now gives us a wealth of knowledge about how the brain maps out this physical experience. In its intricate and complex design, brain-maps chart not only the body but also the space around the body. These maps expand and contract to include everyday objects like the utensil used to cut a steak or the car you are driving. These maps are also shaped by the culture around you. In short, the brain is full of maps for the body’s surface, musculature, intentions and potential action. There is even a map that automatically tracks and emulates the actions and intentions of other people, which leads not only to awareness of but also to empathy for these outsiders. These same maps allow the brain to know when what surrounds the body is dangerous or safe, attractive or repulsive (Blakeslee 2007: 11).
The knowledge that the brain’s touch body maps provide more substantive information than sight and sound for embodied survival shifted the way I began training actors physically. We cannot build the neuro-pathways for understanding color, size, spatial relationships, textures, temperatures and what these things mean, without actually touching and experiencing these things directly. Touch, and the information it brings us moment to moment as well as collectively over time, allows for a substantial and satisfying way into character.
How Touch Influences Character, Emotion and Language
Let me begin with some examples from life: He stands tall, chin lifted, always aware of his position in space and where the door is located. As a young black man in America, he learned from his mother to keep distance and always know what is at his back. It is a safety precaution. In the brain, there is a map for the bubble of space around a person’s body, called peripersonal space, which the brain naturally includes as part of itself in its overall map of the body. Equally, the body is also mapping what is just outside of the peripersonal space, both for utilitarian purposes (can I reach the remote control from my chair?) and for safety (is that person standing behind me at the ATM going to rob me?). Touch means not only tangible contact with skin or body; the space immediately around us and the space around that is part of what the brain registers in its touch maps.
Another example: when she touches her baby’s face, mother and child are directly combining touch maps and peripersonal space, triggering oxytocin to flood their bodies as the bonding is embodied. Examples of characters negotiating the peripersonal space can also be found in plays: Cristopher’s painstaking steps through the London tube in Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. The overstimulation of proximity to strangers, walls and open tracks require a re-mapping of his body in space to account for so much new and strange information. Or the way Berniece touches the piano in August Wilson’s Piano Lesson to ward off the ghosts of her ancestors. Her fingers find and press against the keys, creating a partnership in her brain maps that make her (at least in her brain’s experience) bigger than herself. Or the complicated undressing of Song Liling, a male opera diva disguised as a female in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. The texture, shape, size and color of his clothes were made to transform his sex; even the closures and openings of the fabric are mapped by the brain creating the experience of being both sutured and vulnerably exposed. Each of these reminds us of the intimate, expressive and evocative ways in which touch reveals character.
I ask actors to try this experiment: Close your eyes or soften your gaze so it is not directly on one thing. Notice the information that your body’s touch maps are providing you. The amount is tremendous: varying textures of clothes, quality of floor under your feet, temperatures of your own skin and air around your skin, your weight and the pressure that provides, the amount of space your body takes up, the amount of space immediately in reach, the knowledge of what is out of reach even without looking at it. How does this shape character? Watching people do pedestrian activities, such as typing or drinking or walking, reveals character in how they do what they do. Even the action of thinking has an embodiment. Where do you put your hands when you think (on your chin, or fingers intertwined, or arms crossed)?
Until I had an understanding of body maps, there was simply an adverb that accompanied any pedestrian action and that made character more specific.
What is actually happening, however, is that our body maps, which have been feeding our brains information since before birth, shape our outward interactions with the world, and hence even shape what appears to be the idiosyncrasies of personality. The ingrained-from-birth way of navigating the world through touch maps may not necessarily be written into the text. When physicalizing some acute sensory input that a character requires, such as carrying a weapon, smoking, or nail-biting, the actor directly alters the body map and sends new information to the brain. Adding further clues from the text (such as the verbs a character uses) and intuition about how and why this human exists in the world (objective) to this sensory input makes a perfect triumvirate for creating a rich, complex and fully embodied character.
And then we consider emotion in the body, which has a fascinating correlation in neurology. The brain’s insula plays a key role in emotional awareness, empathy and physiological self-regulation (Blakeslee 2007: 213). This reveals how the body takes information and translates it into emotional feelings or awareness. A key example of this is the fight or flight reaction. Danger raises the cortisol and adrenalin in the body and creates either the feeling of aggression (fight) or of fear (flight).
Within the last twenty years, Dr. Hugo Critchley, a brain map expert, has discovered the direct correlation between a brain function called interoception (the ability to read and interpret sensations arising from within one’s own body) and emotional intelligence. He discovered that the more in tune and accurate one’s awareness of his/her own internal physiology (the heart rate, for instance), the more developed the insula is and the more empathetic the person is.
Interoception has two sources: one, the internally mapped state of the body (organs), and two, a class of receptors (different from the touch receptors) found on the body’s surface that send information about the body’s internal balance, which include temperature, pain, itch, muscle ache, sexual arousal, crude touch and sensual touch. In other words, many body parts are being mapped by both systems.
Why does the brain/body need interoception? Critchley’s study revealed that interoception does much more than let the body know when it is hungry or exhausted or sexually sated. A crucial piece to our neurological puzzle, it gives us emotional awareness. The insula literally connects the state of the body to the state of the brain, which, in this context, means the sensory perceptions, abstract thoughts, linguistic processing and motivations that occur elsewhere in the cortex (Blakeslee 2007: 189). According to neuroanatomist Arthur Craig, one detects the state of the body and the state of the mind together. This discovery forms the foundation for the theory of emotional intelligence. And for performers, interoception encourages a full embrace of the physical and the emotional as one entity.
Tangible action requires the five flesh bound senses of touch (pressure, temperature, pain, balance, position and motion in space). Consider that famous example in An Actor Prepares, in which the actor is asked to locate a brooch in the folds of a curtain and then given very desperate prior circumstances to raise the stakes. Her first go at the exercise was a failure, meaning not very believable. She worked herself into an emotional frenzy to show her distress but never really looked for the brooch. After a reframing of the circumstances, namely that she would be kicked out of the class if she did not find it, she went into the moment with great clarity and fastidiously looked for the brooch in each fold, carefully touching every inch of the fabric so as not to miss the needed object. The tangible action revealed her need, and her need created a truthful connection through touch (Stanislavsky 1936: 35-36). The mind and body were working as one.
Because motivated action requires touch, and touch requires motivated action, I am constantly striving to find new ways to let the body do the thinking. Even when language is primary, as with Shakespeare, the body is still the vehicle through which we experience the language. Personalizing language that is not our own is often the very challenge that keeps a character just out of reach to both the performer and consequently, the audience. Add to that the need to be truly present with a partner. Jacques Lecoq incorporated the literal push and pull of bodies in his physical training for actors and related it to the push and pull of emotions and language, helping actors to have a direct experience of the play’s events and text:
Action mime [the foundation for the analysis of human physical action] shows us that everything a person does in their life can be reduced to two essential actions: ‘to pull’ and ‘to push.’ We do nothing else! These actions include the passive ‘I am pulled’ and ‘I am pushed’ and the reflexive ‘I pull myself’ and ‘I push myself’ and can go in many directions: forwards, to one side or the other, backwards, diagonally, etc. I call this the rose of effort. (2006: 86-87)
This physical experience of language can become an actor’s super-power. Raymond Gibbs, a psychologist who focuses on language and meaning, argues that cognition and language cannot be removed from our experience of embodiment and our body’s relationship to environment. The science of body maps and touch supports this as well. For example reading the word “lick” activates the tongue area of the brain. Hearing someone say “kick” activates the leg areas of the brain. The body is the foundational source of meaning; it feeds the mind experiences through the eyes, ears and bodily experience and gives meaning to the experience (Blakeslee 2007: 172). Poets and playwrights use this with great effect. Before I knew how the mind’s body maps build and develop our understanding of the world, I thought of this flowery language as a poignant, albeit intellectual, way of pointing to a thing, an event or an encounter. For example, Hemingway writes about Truth as if it could be physically experienced:
He tried to spit out the truth;
Dry mouthed at first,
He drooled and clobbered in the end;
Truth dribbling his chin.
Screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail. (Macbeth)
And Tony Kushner:
I dream that you batter away at me till my joints come apart, like wax, and I fall into pieces. (Angels in America)
And Lynn Nottage:
You will not fight your battles on my body anymore. (Ruined)
Everyday language, too, is full of the language of embodiment. Here are some commonplace examples:
I was bowled over by the idea.
I was swept away.
Once I get rolling, I can’t stop talking.
It has been a long bumpy road.
We’re at a crossroads.
We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.
My mind was racing.
Let’s toss some ideas around.
He tore apart his argument.
That’s too much for me to digest.
He took the words right out of my mouth.
I need to pick your brain.
This list shows quite a different relationship to the way we embody thinking. Dr. Joseph Grady, a cognitive linguist, argues that the strong correlation in everyday embodied experience leads to the creation of what he calls primary metaphors. These metaphorical correlations arise out of our embodied functioning in the world (Gibbs 2006: 117).
Using the language that is given by a playwright can point the actor to the embodied experience of the character. Listing just the verbs a character speaks, I immediately get a sense of how the character lives in his/her body and consequently sees the world. But if we extend further into their metaphors of embodiment, we can find all sorts of correlations to space, pain, touch, pressure, temperature, thought process, relationship to others and objects, fear, ambition, to name a few.
All of these have their correspondence in body maps which keep us functioning in the world. To alter the input the body maps are receiving based on this textual information brings us into a new way of experiencing the body and gives birth to a shift in character. Take, for example, Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days; her whole existence is an exercise in touch, being buried from the waist down and later from the neck down while still diligently trying to execute her daily activities. But her language, too, reveals how she inhabits her body and her environment:
Is gravity what it was, Willie, I fancy not. (Pause.) Yes, the feeling more and more that if I were not held—(gesture)—in this way I would simply float up into the blue. (Pause.) And that perhaps someday the earth will yield and let me go, the pull is so great, yes, crack all round me and let me out. (Pause.) Don’t you ever have that feeling, Willie, of being sucked up? (Pause.) Don’t you have to cling on sometimes, Willie?
Taking the physical metaphor of being ungrounded, untethered to the earth and the fear of floating away, and then literally putting that into the body, either by holding on to the ground for dear life or letting the body live in a constant state of floating motion with an inability to remain still immediately shifts the way the brain maps experience; this shift in the map results in emotion and character.
How Touch Changes the Way We Experience Space and Relationship
When beginning with a new scene partner, touch becomes instrumental in the process of learning the dynamic between two individuals, not just actor to actor, but also character to character. As with peripersonal space, the area around the body and the distance between people is tangibly experienced and mapped in the brain, allowing for judgements and decisions based on what or who enters into this range of space. The body bristles, flinches or clenches with danger, but softens, melts, yields with positive interference like attraction, love, family. Neuroscientist Michael Graziano, who discovered the “flinch” cells says, “Your body needs a system to keep you from bumping into furniture and staying a healthy distance from a cliff . . . brush away an insect, reach safely around a prickly object. . . . Your life would be impossible without [these] protective mechanisms” (Blakeslee 2007: 134).
The discovery of flinch cells gives reason to believe that there might also be “hug” cells, though they are yet to be discovered. It has been shown, however, that smart phone and social media activity lights up the same part of the brain as seeing a loved one. As the brain maps out what to avoid touching and what to pull closer to touch, proximity becomes a powerful tool not just for staging and story-telling, but also for relationship development. As the brain makes the space between people (and objects) viscous, meaning tangible, it heightens our use of that space as performers. Bridging the chasm or protecting peripersonal space is a decision or negotiation in every moment on stage just as it is for expanding and contracting body maps.
But how does space and the way we “touch” space contribute to relationships? Just as one can experience the feeling of One Big Body Map, so too can one feel the collective map of two bodies in relation to each other. Consider moments of extreme collectivity such as a baseball game when a player hits a home run and an entire crowd stands and cheers simultaneously, or a rock concert where a large mass seems to pulse as one to the beat. A large orchestra or dance company has a collective map that is necessary in collaborating to perform a piece of music or choreography.
On a smaller scale, you can observe the difference in how lovers hold hands, often with fingers intertwined, whereas young friends hold palm to palm without interlacing. Sexual intercourse can be seen as the ultimate form of body map entanglement, but even these earlier, more public examples allow bodies to interact in a way that is profoundly effective in combining maps (Blakeslee 2007: 137). When applied to relationship development between characters in plays, the entanglement of body maps or the desire to attract and repel become powerful considerations in truly being with one another on stage.
In addition, there is a special set of cells, called mirror neurons, within certain high-level body maps that represent actions performed both by oneself and by others. They are key to many higher mental functions, including imitation, empathy, language acquisition, and the ability to read one another’s intentions. “You can think of mirror neurons as body maps that run simulations of what other people’s body maps are up to. . . . They allow you to grasp the minds of others, not through conceptual reasoning, but by modeling their actions, intentions, and emotions in the matrix of your own body mandala” (Blakeslee 2007: 166).
These mirror neurons can be used in working with partners on stage. Their function encourages acute listening to what is outside of us, but, more importantly, proves why we must listen to the other’s body not just to their voice or language. Mirror neurons serve as a bridge for decoding and internalizing the meanings of other people’s actions by processing them within your own body maps. We have a copy of every action someone else does in our own brain and the same is true of emotions. When we approach a scene from this knowledge we harness our natural tendency for empathy. This is how we come to understand humanity.
It could be argued that these new ways of approaching actor training are a mere shift in semantics. After all, if it is true that our thoughts and language are already embodied by the intricate and complex inner workings of our brains’ maps then why change anything at all? Perhaps the knowledge of and appreciation for all that our brain is doing to maintain our embodied experience and understanding of the world is enough to create meaningful renditions of other people. But as any aficionado of theatre, film or television would attest, there are great performances and average ones and often what makes a great performance is an actor who can play a character with such complexity and clarity that we believe their body, voice and mind have transcended his or her own to become the character. And that their relationships with others are rich and full of history, chemistry and truth.
This is why the how-of-the-mind becomes a great friend to the actor. It allows for a way into the shift from self to character that is not merely cosmetic or demonstrative but, instead, embodied on a cellular level that comes from the new information we give the body-brain communication through touch.
 The link to the following image is another pictorial reference to how the maps in the brain correlate to each body part. The brain maps each sensory receptor onto the cortex rather than considering the area of the body where the sensor is located. The more receptors there are in a given area of skin, the larger that area’s map will be represented on the surface of the cortex. As a result, the size of each body region in the homunculus is related to the density of sensory receptors.
 As an example, there is a Namibian tribe, the nomadic Himba, that believes each person in born with a bubble that extends beyond their body (peripersonal space), which moves as the person moves and intermingles with other people’s bubbles as a tangible thing in accountable space and therefore, they are never alone.
 The insula is the part of the brain that maps visceral and homeostatic (the body’s ability to maintain internal balance) information.
 Listed below are some of the prominent primary metaphors as laid out by Grady (Gibbs 2006: 117):
Intimacy is closeness: “We have a close relationship.” Or “We are tight.”
Difficulties are burdens: “She’s got the weight of the world on her shoulders.” Or “He’s weighed down by all the responsibility.”
Affection is warmth: “They greeted me warmly.” Or “Her words warmed my heart.”
Time is motion: “Time flies.” Or “Night fell.” Or “Time stood still.”
Emotional states are locations: “I’m at the brink of despair.” Or “He’s wants me to submit, but I just can’t go there.” Or “I am moved by your kindness.”
Purposes are destinations: “He’ll be successful but isn’t there yet.” Or “His goals are in sight.” Or “I want us to be on the same page.”
Causes are physical forces: “They pushed the bill through Congress.” Or “This is a pressing matter.” Or “We must keep fighting for equality.”
Beckett, Samuel. Happy Days. New York: Grove Press, 1961.
Blakeslee, Matthew and Blakeslee, Sandra. The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. New York: Random House, 2007.
Cuddy, Amy. Presence. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2015.
Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr. Embodiment and Cognitive Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Ultimately.” Double-Dealer, June 1922.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: Part I. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2013.
Lecoq, Jacques. The Moving Body. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2002.
Nottage, Lynn. Ruined. New York: Theatre Communication Group, Inc., 2009.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. London: The Macmillan Company, 1898.
*Tracy Bersley has worked as a director/choreographer at Lincoln Center, The Public, BAM, Lortel Theatre, Second Stage, Primary Stages, McCarter Theatre, Williamstown and many Off-Broadway companies, such as The Civilians and Red Bull Theatre. She has also worked as a professor or guest artist at Yale School of Drama, NYU, Purchase College, Columbia/Barnard, Princeton and Juilliard. Tracy received her MFA in Directing from Syracuse and is currently Assistant Professor and the head of movement for the MFA acting program at UNC Chapel Hill/Playmakers Repertory. She is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers and a Drama League Fellow.