"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
‘My Left Foot’ won Daniel Day Lewis the Academy Award for Best Actor.
In the annals of Hollywood and the halls of acting schools, the work of method actors carries a special weight. For his work on the 1989 film adaptation of Christy Brown’s My Left Foot, Daniel Day Lewis stayed in character as the Irish painter afflicted with cerebral palsy by remaining in his wheelchair practically at all times (having members of the crew carry him when necessary) and learning to paint with his foot. For his role in The Last of the Mohicans, Day Lewis honed his survivalist skills and carried his gun nearly everywhere. Indeed, a quick Internet search will turn up heaps of stories just like this about the extreme techniques that method actors use to deliver an authentic performance.
Any particular person is the product of a steady accumulation of life experiences. These experiences tend to emerge as patterns in the environment, like the kinds of people we habitually see, the kinds of hidden cultural biases we ingest, our physical surroundings and what they say about our social status. These patterns slowly and subtly craft a particular way of thinking, speaking and being in the world. They craft our personality and to a large extent how we define ourselves — our identity.
So really, method acting cannot possibly help to deeply penetrate the psyche of another person. And yet, the demands of method acting highlight the role of habit as a gateway to personality and even identity.
Habits are the set of behaviors and thoughts that emerge in a life as a kind of ritual. It is so much more than whether or not you brush your teeth before bed or bite your nails during the day. It’s ubiquitous.
In psychology, a habit is an automatic reaction to a particular set of circumstances. My boss/mother/coworker says this and therefore I feel this. I see a young couple holding hands and therefore I think this. I make eye contact on the subway and therefore I do this.
There is little if any conscious choice that goes into how we react in these situations. Thus, our thoughts and behavior seem inevitable. Of course I would think that. Of course I would respond that way.
This is the cage of habitual thinking and action.
Contrary to the psychological take on personality from patterned experience, Eastern theories of enlightenment encourage us to give up the illusion that we are individuals indelibly rooted in one lifetime of events and preferences. Instead, each one of us is a microcosm of Being itself, an access point to everything that is and ever was (and will be). And as such, we are forced to realize the smallness and replaceability of the habits of thought, dress and action that might otherwise define our lives.
In other words, the human mind is malleable. Neurologists speak of the “plasticity” of the brain and how humans stay susceptible to change and learning well into old age.
Method acting is prefaced on these ideas — that one’s personal experiences can be an access point to someone else’s and that relentlessly and thoroughly learning new habits can bring us to a different state of being.
And this state of things speaks to what we may consider the ultimate human freedom — the freedom to be the person you want to be. Apart from the accessories of money, status, fashion and home, the real human being is a personality, an identity, a set of habits.
So perhaps Daniel Day Lewis is not so crazy after all.
Since I mentioned “neural plasticity” in the article, it’s worth noting that hardly any neuroscientists are sold on the idea that the brain can be altered more or less easily at any age. Rather, plasticity simply refers to the capacity, given the right enabling circumstances, for the brain to “re-wire” itself with tremendous effort. A recent article in The Atlantic called “My Life as a Nonviolent Psychopath” interviewed a neuroscientist who’s very skeptical that his own psychopathic tendencies can be changed through behavioral modification.
Your degree of neural plasticity might relate to how deeply ingrained (and perhaps genetically prefigured) behaviors or thoughts are, or perhaps whether you are trying to replace existing habits or adding new ones.
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