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The Psycho-epistemology Of Acting

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This essay is an attempt to explain, in more detail than has been presented in the past, the psychological processes involved in acting. I'm going to define some basic concepts in psychology and psycho-epistemology and apply them to the realm of theatre, specifically to Stanislovski's method of acting.

Psycho-epistemology is the study of the interrelationship between one's mind, body, and spirit. By mind, I mean both the reasoning, volitional mind and the subconscious mind. By body, I mean the particulars of one's body (like body-type and sex), and also the kinds of motions that the body performs, i.e., motor control and involuntary actions. By spirit, I mean one's emotional experience of life, including a broad range of particular emotional responses one can identify in different situations.


Automatization is the most important concept in the realm of psycho-epistemology. Your mind has the ability to automatize(i.e., make automatic) an understanding of many different kinds of relationships, and to make this information immediately available to you. One automatizes concepts, ideas, evaluations, complex chains of actions, and interrelationships between these.

It's not difficult to perceive automatization at work in one's own mind. As you are reading this sentence, right now, you don't have to stop and consider the meaning of each word separately. You know the definitions of the words in the sentence, and your mind makes this information immediately available to you. In this way, you can read the whole sentence and get the gist of the ideas being communicated without going back and mentally rehashing your understanding of the individual words.

With physical actions, it's even easier to see automatization at work. When you first learned to ride a bicycle, you had to focus on the individual actions involved: the balance, steering, pumping the pedals and so forth. But now you can ride a bike under normal circumstances without giving it a second thought. You can ride a bike, chew gum, and talk on your cell-phone all at the same time. This is because your mind has consolidated the complex chain of actions involved in "bike-riding," and has made this information immediately available for use whenever you need it.


Emotions are a different animal, and are not automatized in the same way as concepts and physical actions. Emotions are the psycho-somatic form in which one experiences his automatized evaluations of the world around him. By psycho-somatic, I mean that emotional experiences are at once mental and physical. One is conscious of an emotion and it also affects his body in a particular way.

Emotions are a response to automatized evaluations, or automatized value-judgments, about the world around us. Automatized evaluations function in much the same way as automatized concepts or physical movements, but on a higher intellectual level.

An evaluation is a moral judgment of some aspect of reality, i.e., an answer to the question "Is this thing good for me or bad for me?" In the course of your life, you make a countless number of individual evaluations about different things. These individual judgments are retained by your subconscious. If you value good grades and receive an 'A' on a paper, you don't have to rehash all the reasons why you value good grades in order to feel good about it. Your mind makes this information immediately available to you in the form of a positive emotion.

So, emotions give us information about our automatized value-judgments. When one encounters an aspect of reality (a good grade on a paper) that has automatized evaluations associated with it (good grades rock!), then the body responds with an emotion (yay!). It the simplest form, emotions work like this: If you see something you think is good for you, you feel good; if you see something you think is bad for you, you feel bad.

As an individual grows, and experiences a broader range of evaluations and emotions, he tends to associate a certain set of physical actions with his emotions. When he is amused, he laughs; when he is happy, he smiles; when he is upset, he cries. His mind automatizes the relationship between his ideas and evaluations, his emotions, and his physical actions. This is why, if you force yourself to crinkle your brow, curl your lip, grit your teeth, and snarl, it can actually make you feel angry. Your mind may even naturally drift to ideas or memories that make you angry. Such is the power and organization of the human mind.


Now, we should have enough of the basic terminology to take our understanding of Stanislovski's method a step further.

The actor's goal is to make a fictional situation appear to be reality, both to himself and to his audience. He strives to make the situation seem real to himself because in this way he is able to tap into the wealth of mind-body-spirit connections that are automatized in his mind, and use this information to give a truthful performance. Stanislovski's method is one way for the actor to tap into his own soul, as it were.

The current understanding of the psychological process of emotional experiences is thus: stimulus --> emotion --> physical action. Based on the information presented in this essay, we can extend the explanation to look like this: stimulus --> automatized evaluation --> emotion --> physical action.

It's important to note that, though this is a process that one's mind performs daily, it's not the only process that the mind is capable of. As mentioned earlier, with the example of making oneself angry, physical actions can elicit an emotional response (physical action --> emotion). Also, emotional experiences can lead one to think about ideas or memories associated with that emotion. For example, if one is feeling depressed his mind may tend to sway towards unhappy thoughts and memories (emotion --> automatized evaluation). The mind is a powerful computer, capable of retaining a massive number of automatized relationships. Complex interrelationships between mind, body, and spirit are stored in the mind as complete units.

In scoring a role, the actor relates a fictional character in a fictional situation to his own life, to his own automatized evaluations of the world. In blocking the scene, he plans a set of physical actions that approximate how his character would act in reality. If the actor has scored his role properly, his mind is in the role. If he performs his physical actions properly, his body is in the role. With the combination of these two factors, the actor has given his consciousness all the stimuli it needs to elicit the appropriate emotional response, to get his spirit in the role.

It is crucial for the actor to elicit an emotional response in himself on stage because it would be impossible for him to recall such a large number of particular physical actions as would be necessary to create a believable reality to the spectator. If he taps into the automatized relationships (mind, body, and spirit) that are already present in his subconscious, then he can allow his subconscious to do the work for him. If he is able to elicit the emotion of sadness, for instance, then he will naturally hang his head more, close his body, choke up his voice, etc. There are so many physical actions associated with each emotion, he would never be able to remember them all, much less enact them on stage. But by tapping into his subconscious, he will have immediately available to him a massive arsenal of automatized physical actions.

Stanislovski may not have had a highly technical understanding of psychology, but he was clearly a visionary in the realm of psycho-epistemology. His understanding of the human mind, and of the way it makes connections between mind, body, and emotion, is nearly without parallel. The field of psycho-epistemology is still very young, and in many ways we're still standing on Stanislovski's shoulders.

--Dan Edge

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That was a fascinating essay. I am familiar with Stanislovski's approach to acting and the profound influence it has had on American theatre and cinema. I wonder if you have considered the effectiveness of variations of the Method, such as Lee Strasberg's emphasis on affective memory? And what about non-Method techniques in acting, such as the work of Don Richardson?

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I haven't read Strasberg or Richardson, so thank you very much for the reading recommendations. I was introduced to the Method through Sonia Moore's book on the subject, then I read Stanislovski's "The Actor Prepares" and (the other major one I can't remember the name of at the moment).

I have no experience with acting, and wrote this essay while taking an Acting 101 class. My primary interest is psycho-epistemology, and I appreciate Stanislovski's (implicit) understanding of the topic. He had a powerful insight into the Mind-Body connection. This paper serves as a partial foundation for the "Mind-Body Integration" essay I posted here a few weeks ago. I'd be interested in feedback on these or related topics.


--Dan Edge

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