Notes on the Psycho Epistemology of Acting

Dan Edge's picture
Submitted by Dan Edge on Thu, 2006-03-23 23:15



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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Emotions are a response to

JennaW's picture

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.

Emotions are not wholly programmable by thought. They are influenced by thought, and can be "trained" to a certain extent, but not trained beyond biological constraints. Emotion also influences thought as well. For some information on emotion research, check out the Lab for Affective Neuroscience.

Try It Your Own Way

Dan Edge's picture


When I proposed the "rage" exercise, I suggested physical motions that are related to rage in my subconscious, but these kinds of emotional expressions vary from person to person.  I recommend that you alter the experiment to coincide with your own personal experience.  Start by thinking of a situation that made you very angry, and allow yourself to express this anger physically.  Pay close attention to the physical aspects of your experience: your facial expression, which muscles tense up, changes in breathing pattern, etc.  Then force yourself to exaggerate these physical motions without thinking of anything at all.  I gurantee that you will experience an emotinonal reaction, though it will be less intense than if you also focused on a memory associated with rage.

I want to point out that I have very little experience with acting, and have never practiced these kinds of exercises to any significant degree.  I am in an Acting 101 class right now, but we haven't even gotten to the acting part yet, we're still dealing with theory.  I have been in one short play in my adult life, and in preparation for that play one of my freinds, who is an actress, had me undergo an exercise similar to the one above.  I had an intense emotional reaction the very first time I tried this, without thinking of anything at all.  It was surreal! 

I know that part of this seems counterintuitive, which is why it's so difficult to put into conceptual terms. When my actress friend tried to explain it to me beforehand, I didn't believe her; I just couldn't wrap my brain around it. But I am absolutely certain that these kinds of direct "body-spirit" actions occur. I encourage you to conduct an experiment similar to the one I suggested and analyze the results.

This morning I starting writing an outline for an essay which will discuss these ideas in more detail. I want to get a clearer understanding of the teleology of the subconscious, and how it integrates mental, physical, and emotional elements of life experience into units. I'm really excited about this! Eventually, I want to apply this theory to several different areas of psychological self-training, with a special focus on the physical components of emotional expression regarding communication, sexuality, and romance.

RE Intellectual level: In looking over what I wrote, I see that I was unclear. Thanks for encouraging intellectual precision in my writing; that's what makes it so much better to present articles like this in a public forum.

Thanks for reading,

--Dan Edge

Brow crinkling

sjw's picture

Dan, crinkling my brow & pacing isn't going to work because that's what I do when I'm thinking Eye

I still think you're wrong about this one but I don't know how to argue it at the moment other than to point out that moving certain muscles certain ways doesn't make me angry (and crinkling my brow and pacing doesn't make me think either), and suggest that perhaps you've automatized acting so well that you're not noticing what you're doing.

RE intellectual level: If all you're saying is that for a given concept in a given man's mind, an evaluation he makes relative to it requires more scope than the concept itself, OK. I thought you were saying that concepts are inherently lesser scope than evaluations.

Try It...

Dan Edge's picture

"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."

Shayne, all I I can tell you is to try this: Pace back and forth, breath sharply, flex your chest and shoulders, and force a look on your face like you're ready to kill someone. I can just about gurantee you will feel some degree of anger or rage. It's only a shadow of the kind of intensity you would experience if you were actually in a situation where the emotion was justified, but you can feel it nonetheless. It is not necessary to think about anything to incite an emotional response, but you may notice that doing this will bring to mind memories or fantasies that coincide with the emotion.

I know inductively that this works, but my conceptual understanding of why this happens is incomplete. My theory is that (as I mentioned in the essay) the human mind automatizes elements of mind, body, and spirit as complete units. Using the "rage" example: the mind stores intellectual, physical, psychological, and emotional experiences related to rage together.

(Note: I don't mean to imply that emotions are primary. In reality one's knowledge of all of these aspects of his life experience are integrated. I'm just using an emotion as an example.)

It's similar to the way the mind connects knowledge and concepts. If you focus on the concept "bird," the subconscious will feed you realted information, like "sparrow" or "animal", or something else related to whatever it is you're thinking about. I believe the subconscious engages in a similar process with emotions and physical actions.

Based on the mind/body/spirit integration theory I have proposed, the subconscious contains automatized connections between memories of rage, physical expressions of rage, and the emotional experience of rage together, as complete units. So, if you force yourself to act physically as if you were enraged, the subconscious wants to feed you the related information.

Note that simply crinkling your brow will probably have no effect. If you crinkle your brow and pace back and forth, you may feel something. Throw in the breathing, narrow the eyes, etc, and the feeling grows progressively stronger. I believe this is because you are adding more physical elements together that are connected to "rage" in the subconscious. The more closely you approximate the elements of physical action associated with rage, the greater the emotional response. This makes sense, because you are giving the subconscious more of a reason to feed you the related information.

I'm still working this stuff out, and what I just wrote above is about as in depth as I've ever thought about this, so please keep that in mind, folks!


Back to this:

"Automatized evaluations function in much the same way as automatized concepts or physical movements, but on a higher intellectual level."

I say that automatized evaluations function on a "higher intellectual level" simply because the scope of information required for moral judgements is broader than the scope for any particular concept. I was just reading the ITOE the other day, in which Rand describes "scope" as one of the measurements omitted in forming concepts of consciousness. Scope is the "length of the coceptual chain required to deal with" whatever concept we're talking about (pg 32, italics hers). It seems to me that the conceptual chain required to deal with any moral judgement is necessarily more complex than the nature of that which one is judging.

(Whew again!)

I hope that was clear, I was kind of explaining it to myself as I wrote it.

Anyway, thanks for the props and the good questions. I'm glad you like the article. You can see, there's a lot more to be written here! I hope to work on more soon.


--Dan Edge

Fantastic article, fantastic thinking

sjw's picture


If I'm not mistaken, you have the distinction of posting the first truly philosphical article to the new Solo. Congratulations--this is great stuff. This is Objectivism applied to acting. I think you have a mind capable of great things.

The article was so very precise in its terminology and connection to Objectivism was right on the mark, but I do have a few questions/quibbles.

"Automatized evaluations function in much the same way as automatized concepts or physical movements, but on a higher intellectual level."

Can you explain why you think it is a higher level than automatized concepts? I don't get that.

"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."

I don't think this is right. Certainly you can recall memories that help elicit that emotion/physical reaction, but merely performing those actions does not elicit the emotion except perhaps that it might remind you of previous emotional states that elicted the same physical reaction?

Nice article, Dan.

Ross Elliot's picture

Nice article, Dan.

"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."

I agree that the second process is mostly true and ought to be the rule, but the first is often apparent. Ever told an environmentalist that whale meat tastes great with mushrooms? Or a rabid anti-American that the US is the greatest civilisation the world has ever witnessed? Or a socialist that they are a reactionary welfare-statist? The response is Pavlovian. It's stimulus->emotion->action or more properly stimulus->response. It's learned and unthinking. That's why you can't reason with most of them; they never used reason to arrive at their response. They have nothing but invective and slogans.

The same would apply to bad or formula actors.

Great Post

Kamarat McWashington's picture

Great Post, keep them comming.


Dan Edge's picture

Actually, I broker used electronics equipment. I just thought it was an interesting topic Smiling

--Dan Edge

Very interesting Dan ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... thanks for posting. Are you an actor yourself?

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