Imagine this: you’re a pre-historic human, living 10,000 years ago. You live in a cave, you hunt and forage for food, you’re surrounded by wild animals and dire threats. Every day is a very real struggle to keep yourself and your offspring alive. Living in this situation, which of these two experiences would be more important to remember?
A. “When big snake bite Gruk, his foot swell up and Gruk die.”
B. “When I throw spear and hit target, Urga smile at me.”
Obviously, in terms of survival, Experience A is far more important to store in your brain than Experience B. For early humans, failing to notice and remember the bad things (a snake bite can kill you) was life- threatening. Failing to notice and remember the good things (Urga’s admiration of your spear-throwing) was not.
In the modern day we don’t live under constant threat of violent death, but (and this is important) our brain’s reactions have not caught up to our new circumstances. Our brains—particularly the parts that evolved first, such as the limbic system (the “reptile brain” that reacts to stress and danger) are still living in prehistoric times, watching out for dangerous experiences and keeping them alive in your memory to keep you alive literally.
In other words, your brain has a built-in evolutionary negative bias that you cannot change.
For the auditioning actor, this negative bias generally manifests in four ways:
1. As we saw above, your brain is wired to retain and value negative memories over positive ones.
2. Your brain is wired to fear social rejection:
• Because group cooperation was necessary for survival, social humiliation (rejection) could lead to shunning—removal from the group—which meant certain death: unlike now, no one in pre-historic times could survive for long alone.
• This is partly why rejection of any kind feels so terrible: it stimulates your limbic system, the part of the brain that reacts to life-or-death situations.
• This stimulus causes your brain to react to the relatively meaningless rejection of a bad audition (after all, it’s just one role) as intensely as you would to an actual threat to your life. It’s not you being overly dramatic or hypersensitve—it’s your reptile brain fearing the loss of the community that used to keep you alive.
3. Your brain is wired to compare yourself to other people:
• Social comparison enabled survival because it gave us the impetus to learn from others: “Grog’s spear better than my spear. If I make good spear like Grog, I more likely kill antelope.”
• Social comparison works great for survival when the skills being compared are largely objective--that is, measurable and not influenced by personal bias: “Grog’s spear fly faster. I learn his technique for make spear.”
...when the skills being compared are subjective—that is, based on personal preference and bias (e.g. this particular casting director prefers brunettes, or taller men, or actors who went to a particular school) the limbic system can drive the prefrontal cortex crazy, flooding your brain with dire stress hormones when you compare yourself to others. This is why it is so difficult to reason yourself out of being envious of another actor’s success. It’s not because you’re petty. The reptile brain insists that social comparison is necessary for your survival even though there’s nothing you can do about other people’s subjective opinions, and they aren’t really matters of life or death.
4. Your brain is wired to make up stories and listen to gossip: we create stories to better remember bad decisions so as not to repeat them.
• Prehistoric man created storytelling in order to pass on bad experiences in a memorable way so that each new generation wouldn’t have to learn to avoid snakes all over again.
• Our brains are wired to take an experience, highlight and exaggerate the negative aspects and share the experience with other people, especially if the experience is painful. This is how the tribe learns and passes down knowledge.
• This habit of the brain is useful if you are remembering the story Urga told about the new berries she found that made her vomit all night long. Even if Urga exaggerated (the berries only made her nauseated), it’s still safer for you not to eat the berries yourself because you remember the exaggerated version.
• However, this habit of the brain is not useful if your friend tells you that Casting Director X was the meanest person she ever auditioned for and hates actors from your particular studio. Your friend is probably exaggerating, but your brain seizes on the negativity, and primes you to be nervous and alert when you audition for Casting Director X, for your own “safety”.
Our brains are also wired to give inordinate credence to information about other people that sparks social comparison. Again, this is useful when you can learn a skill from someone has knowledge you lack. It is not useful when the guy ahead of you at an audition tells you he went to school with the director, and you instantly create a story in your mind that he is more connected than you and that’s why you won’t get this job or ever get ahead, period, even though there is no rational evidence that this is true.
Finally, our brains are wired to remember and repeat gossip. This is useful if you are gossiping with Urga’s sister about how Urga gives everyone a headache with her whining, and you learn that Urga’s sister makes a great headache medicine by adding mint to her headache tea. Social comparison will cause you to add mint to your headache tea, which will benefit the group.
However, this habit of the brain is NOT useful if you hear that Joey McBooksalot got called “the best young actor to watch” by Actor Panic Magazine. Your limbic system screams “Social Comparison! Necessary to Emulate this Person for Survival! Adjust Behavior Immediately!” But there’s nothing you can actually do, because your reptile brain is reacting to information (the opinion of some dude who edits Actor Panic Magazine), which has nothing to do with actual survival and is totally out of your control.
By now you can see that many aspects of the actor’s life involve perceiving threat in a way that was useful only thousands of years ago, when our lives were at risk on a daily basis. In our modern world, especially in a profession such as acting where we are forced to compete for scarce resources, encouraged to compare ourselves to each other, primed to seek out negative information, and flooded with gossip and opportunities for social comparison, this brain behavior doesn’t serve us and can cause us very real physical and emotional stress.
Unfortunately, the hardware of our brains isn’t going to change: under stress, the brain will always default to prioritize negativity and survival unless we train it not to. We have to update the software of the brain—in other words, we have to train it to respond to the stress of auditioning in a new way.
Molly Goforth is a positive psychology and spiritual wellness practitioner for actors and other artists. For more information visit https://www.anactorrepairs.com/workshops Insta: AnActorRepairs