Brain-based science puts Butler's Elvis voice in perspective

06 March 2023

Elvis star Austin Butler played the role of his life as the King of Rock ‘n Roll, and long after ‘Elvis has left the building’ the star still sounds like the music legend.

Butler’s commitment to Elvis’ voice was nothing short of amazing throughout the film as the 31-year-old Golden Globe best actor portrayed Elvis from the early years to his passing.

However, its Butler’s persistent Elvis sound that has many social media commentators calling “cringe”.

Neuroscientist and CQUniversity Adjunct Lecturer, Dr Ragnar Purje said there was nothing cringe-worthy about how Butler was currently expressing himself, as there was a scientific phenomenon why the actor still sounds like the King, and why – given time – it will eventually subside.

Put simply, it has been his dedication to his craft, the repetitive nature of his training for the film, and his long-term commitment to the role, that has enabled Elvis’ voice to live on in Butler.

“The neuroplasticity fact is that thinking and action changes the brain, and the longer a particular process continues, the more neurological and neurobiological changes will occur,” Dr Purje explained.

“According to neuropsychology experts, the act of thinking requires effort, and it is this action of effort that can shift your attention from perception to action.

“This focused, effortful action of thinking is what activates the brain to commence individual neuron firing, collective neuron firings, neuronal assemblies firing and rewiring by also helping to establish new synaptic connections.”

Dr Purje said this collective firing of neurons has the capacity to not only lead to neurological rewiring and the establishment of neuronal assemblies, but also creates new brain maps which contribute to the cognitive processes and behavioural changes that are taking place.


Austin Butler as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann's "Elvis". (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Added to this is the biological and neurological reality that this process of thinking, and repetitive actions, not only has the potential to create a new brain map, and neuronal assemblies, but also has the potential to lead to added axonal myelination,” Dr Purje explained.

“The more time, effort and energy we put into our practice, which needs to be as accurate as possible, we get more myelination, which then leads to faster message transmission which benefits thinking and skill development.

“And this is what took place in the brain of Butler.

“This process is further endorsed by the findings of neurologist Dr George Bartzokis who says that all skills, language, music and movements are made of living circuits which grow according to certain rules.

“These certain rules state that if one is to achieve success in any discipline, one must continually practice, practice, and then practice even more; which is precisely what Butler did.”

Further to this, Dr Purje said it is important to note that brain maps can be changed, as we see this in the Butler case.

Neurological pathways and neurological processes in the brain can either be lost or gained in accordance with the type of cognitive or physical behaviour the individual presents.

This is known as the ‘use it or lose it’ phenomenon and also the ‘learned nonuse’ phenomenon.

“It is this learned nonuse phenomenon that then leads to the situation where those neurological parts of the brain that are not being used become much less efficient,” Dr Purje explained.

“Basically, if we stop exercising our mental skills, we don’t just forget them, but the brain map space for those skills is turned over to other skills we practice instead.

“Therefore, what we should see with Butler is that as he disengages with what he has been doing for such a long time, those neurological sections of the brain not being used for study purposes, will be pruned, and as a result of this neurological pruning, the potential exists for those previous neurological, cognitive and behavioural efficiencies to become inefficient and redundant.

“Put simply, Butler’s Elvis tones should eventually subside, and critics can stop blaming Butler for something which the brain itself is responsible for.”