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Friday, October 5, 2007

Emotions Unchecked

Not too long ago, I studied acting for a year and a half. As with any approach to acting, the ultimate goal was to ‘live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.’ You don’t pretend to be enraged, grief-stricken, or in love, you actually feel these things in response to what happens. And when an actor is able to achieve this, the effect on the audience is powerful (I always think of Shirley MacLaine screaming in a heartsick rage on the beach with Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment. She moves me instantly to tears every time).

As grown adults, my classmates and I found this goal to be an extraordinarily difficult one to grasp. To respond readily with honest emotion, you must be able to turn off your ‘internal editor’ or your self-consciousness, your ‘monkey mind’. This is the part of your brain, that internal voice, that says to you, “Don’t say that! What will people think?” Or, “Don’t do that! You’ll be so embarrassed.” Or, “If you do that, the other actors and the audience will think you’re stupid, a jerk, or crazy.”

We’ve been socialized not to express our raw, primal emotions. We learn not to scream when we’re angry or cry when we’re sad. When we were two years old and felt overwhelmed or perceived some horrible injustice, we might’ve readily thrown ourselves onto the ground, screaming and writhing in pure anguish. But our (humiliated) parents told us not to do this, maybe punished us or refused attention, extinguishing the behavior, and gave us other tools to use other than expressing the emotion, like ‘using our words.’

Biologically, neurons from the cortex—the brain’s higher thinking centers—form powerful inhibitory connections on the neurons in the brain’s emotion centers. So raw emotion becomes strongly inhibited. Our primary job as actors is to release this inhibition and let the natural emotion happen. I remember watching a toddler throwing a fit in a store one day while I was in the middle of my training and thinking, “If only I could do that!”

Some of you caring for someone with Alzheimer’s and even some of you with Alzheimer’s may’ve noticed this disinhibition of the brain’s primary emotion centers--

Grandpa was always a quiet, reasonable man, and now he’s prone to explosions of loud, scary anger.

Grandma had always been a polite and proper lady, and now she’s being sexually provocative with the men in line at the grocery store.

What’s going on?

Alzheimer’s Disease doesn’t just disrupt memory. It also interferes with those inhibitory connections descending from the cortex to the brain’s emotion centers. Without those inhibitory signals, the emotion centers are free and clear to fire away—Rage! Grief! Lust!

So when someone with Alzheimer’s is reacting with uncharacteristic and unapologetic emotion, he or she isn’t becoming someone else or trying to be difficult. The part of the brain that learned emotional restraint is under attack. They don’t have the neurons they need to dampen or bury it. And, because this disease has likely attacked other parts of the brain involved in language, they may not have the communication skills to ‘use their words.’

My grandmother, who’d always leaned toward flirtatious, became at times embarrassingly outright with her sexuality when she had Alzheimer’s. She would’ve made a great actress. If only she could’ve remembered her lines.

Lisa Genova, Ph.D., author of STILL ALICE, www.StillAlice.com

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

The Alzheimer’s Association is the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer care, support and research. Our mission is to eliminate Alzheimer's disease through the advancement of research; to provide and enhance care and support for all affected; and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health.


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