Method Acting and the Science of Mindfulness

Image: Nicolas Armer

Image: Nicolas Armer

The Oscars broadcast happens later this week, which reminds me of a story I once heard about Marlon Brando.

Like many aspiring actors, Brando took acting classes as a teenager. In one class he was directed to play a man sitting on the couch in his apartment and a stranger walks in the front door. Other actors in the class were very nervous—when it was their turn to role-play they either struggled to find something to say or made light of a stranger entering their home. When Brando’s turn came, he reacted differently: he calmly stood up, took the man by his shirt, and pushed him out the door. When the instructor asked, “What are you doing?” Brando replied, “I don’t know who that guy is.”

Brando’s classmates could have come off as nervous or phony for any number of reasons, but it’s clear they weren’t comfortable in a high-pressure situation. Brando, on the other hand, stayed relaxed and acted naturally (i.e., the way most of us would if someone barged into our home without an explanation).

It may seem intuitive that you’ll perform better if you’re not anxious, but how do you stay composed in a stressful situation?

My friend Emma Seppälä has written extensively about the science of health, happiness, and success. In her recent book, The Happiness Track, Dr. Seppälä argues that the old model of getting ahead, which emphasizes that achievement isn't possible without stress, is outdated. She recommends exercises in compassion, creativity, and mindfulness meditation to improve how you handle pressure situations.

Most sources define mindfulness as the intention to be in the here and now, fully engaged in what is happening, without judgment. There is a vast literature on mindfulness, which aims to cultivate greater control of mental processes and create the optimal conditions for the mind to be calm and clear. Finding “fulfillment in the moment,” in the task at hand, Dr. Seppälä argues, leads to happiness. In turn, being happy allows you to “perform better, be more productive, become charismatic, and build better relationships.”  

Mindfulness practice can be difficult at first, but its overall effect on well-being has been proven. In fact, one trial showed that the effects of mindfulness meditation continue even when someone is not meditating. So how do you learn to calm down and not focus on the next thing or the next person? Here are two quick recommendations, one ancient and one modern:

  1. Breath focus: This practice involves breathing in deeply when you find your mind wandering or you feel stressed. When you breathe out, the idea is to push aside negative thoughts. The practice can be done anywhere and is a simple way to deal with anxiety—and it has the added benefit of being the foundation of more advanced mindfulness techniques.
  2. Headspace. This app provides a guided introduction to mindfulness practice in 10-minute sessions. My work centers on digital behavior, so it’s great to see companies like this finding innovative ways to introduce mindfulness to a wide audience. (Note the basic app is free, but a fee is required if you want to continue with the program.) Other good mindfulness apps include Omvana, The Mindfulness App, or Calm, all of which have their advocates.     

There are other ways to cultivate mindfulness too, such as yoga, tai chi, and walking meditation, so if one technique doesn’t appeal to you, explore other options.

For fun, watch the Oscars and evaluate the speeches. Winners are known to ramble or stammer through their acceptance speeches, so it should be easy to identify actors who would have benefited by being better prepared. You might even see some winners consciously compose themselves and use the breath focus technique described above before they begin speaking.

Sean Young PhD

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: