sign up for our

Home Shop Subscribe Advertise Articles Directories Classifieds Calendar FAQs Contact Us Login

SOUNDS ODD  by Elizabeth Holmes
Fun Facts on the Science of Sound
#15. Inside The Brain Of A Voice Actor

Scientists are studying actors’ brains. Why? Because actors are reliably flexible – and accurate – when it comes to feeling emotions on command.  
A team of neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Scientific Imaging & Brain Research Center wanted to find a way to accurately track and interpret emotional states in subjects to better understand how our brains register emotion. 

The CMU team did this by creating a computer model that analyzed distinctive fMRI patterns (functional Magnetic Resonance Image patterns) associated with a variety of positive and negative feelings. 

Specifically, they studied nine emotions: anger, disgust, envy, fear, happiness, lust, pride, sadness and shame.  


The most common approach other researchers have taken to studying human emotions is to evoke feelings in subjects by having them watch film clips.  Unfortunately, subjects lose interest after several repetitions, and the films no longer evoke the desired response.  

How did the CMU team solve this problem? By turning to Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama! 

The breakthrough came when with one of the team members hit on the idea of using actors for research subjects, because they’re experienced at cycling through emotional states.  


Volunteers from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama first viewed the words of the nine emotions, and then entered these states multiple times, in random order. 

Later, brain scans of these same subjects were analyzed after they’d been shown emotional photos. 

The model was able to correctly identify the emotion involved in the second test with 84% accuracy. (Chance would have been 50%.)  

Happiness was the easiest emotion to identify; envy was the hardest. (Positive and negative emotions have distinctly different neural signatures.) 

And of all of the emotions, lust had the most easily recognized pattern. (Hmmm….)  


The leading neuroscientist on the team, Marcel Just, explained,

"We found that three main organizing factors underpinned the emotion neural signatures, namely the positive or negative valence of the emotion, its intensity — mild or strong, and its sociality — involvement or non-involvement of another person.

"This is how emotions are organized in the brain.”  


Why does this matter to voice actors? Because being able to quickly and consistently feel – then voice – emotion is essential to our work. 

Isn’t it nice to know that leaders in brain science acknowledge that we’re experts at this?    Also, isn’t it nice to know that visual images can be just as powerful as words in ‘lighting up our brains’?  

Something to think about when it comes to sustaining a mood during a long read. Finding a compelling visual image that captures the emotion you’re going for just might make it easier for your brain to stay on track.        

For more on Carnegie Mellon University’s cutting-edge research on the neuroscience behind emotions, see: New Study Extends ‘Mind Reading’ Research to Feelings by Applying Machine Learning Techniques to fMRI Data.

Elizabeth Holmes is a writer, voice actor, and staff editor at VoiceOverXtra, based in Northern California. She is also editor of VoiceOverXtra's book division, including Voice Over Legal, by voice actor / attorney Robert Sciglimpaglia.


Earlier Sounds Odd Columns:
Your Daily Resource For Voice-Over Success
Tell Us What YOU Think!
Please Note: Since we check for spam, there will be a slight delay in the actual posting of your comment.
Your Name:
Your Email Address (will not be published):
Your Comment:
Your Comment:
Security code:     
Comments (2)
Howard Ellison
2/5/2015 at 5:47 AM
Late to the party, that's me! Only just seen this fascinating piece from Elizabeth.

Occasionally I have chipped in on the Psychology wall at LinkedIn to ask why actors apparently get scant attention from researchers or even PhD students (so far, no explanation!).

It's evident neuroscience is pushing the agenda. It ls particularly pleasing to note that Carnegie Mellon chose voice actors, who indeed have to characterize and emote faster and more frequently than our board-treading colleagues.
jennifer dixon
7/7/2013 at 5:48 PM
This point was very evident in the acting course I just finished - Meisner Techniques - where emotional preparation is of the essence! Highly recommend it. I took it in the Detroit Mich. area with Evan Gella r- excellent teacher, but I know there are several courses throughout the country with other teachers too. Really helpful to hone the skills!! Thanks again, Elizabeth!
Back to Articles
For essential voice-over business strategies
Email alerts to new VoiceOverXtra articles
Get your bi-weekly dose here ... all things VO!
With Sean Daeley and Paul Stefano - check it out!