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Neurocinematics: Your Brain on Film

30 Jun , 2009  

Written by April Gardner | Posted by:

April Gardner provides a primer on the burgeoning academic field of neurocinematics, which may answer why we react (or don't) to certain films.

Applying Science to Art

Tell me the answer to this oft-told tale: You’re seeking an atmospheric sound for your opening scene. Do you use the hauntingly slow music, or a modern, jaunty piece? Many filmmakers use their intuition to guide them, but what if you really want to know what resonates more with your audiences?

You could conduct some focus groups, but those can be biased by filtered answers from the group. So what if you actually wanted to delve more into each viewer’s brain? Well, fret no more. The answer is attainable through experiments in the burgeoning field of neurocinematics, which combines the fields of neuroscience and cinema studies to examine the effects of films on viewers.

Let’s continue with our example in soundtrack selection. Through the measurement of a group of participants in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), users watch films while their brain activity is measured. Scientists are looking for activity that reveals common brain activity among viewers to detect similarities in cognitive processing.

This computational method of research is called intersubject correlation; its aim is to determine which areas of the brain are activated by specific film sequences. Uri Hasson, now assistant professor of psychology at Princeton, coined this term. While completing his postdoctoral work at New York University’s (NYU) Center for Neural Science (CNS), Hasson used fMRI to record brain activity while viewers watched four different film sequences. He was surprised to find that the sequences showed different levels of correlation, with the suspenseful Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Bang, You’re Dead having a 65 percent correlation across viewers (meaning that 65 percent of the area of the brain was engaged in the same level of activity for all viewers).

So Hitchcock fans rejoice — he may never have earned an Oscar, but he has demonstratively shown his masterful control of our brains as we contemplate the suspense in his work (even if it was through his comparatively low involvement in the television series).

While the idea of using cognitive psychology in film has existed for about 30 years among a few theorists, the field and its measurement techniques are crawling through its infancy stage. Hasson and his team published a paper with their findings in the Summer 2008 issue of Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind.

Applying Art to Science

Okay, so we know how a filmmaker could conceivably learn from a scientist. But is there something that scientists could learn from filmmakers? Professor Hasson seems to think so, saying in a recent interview that, “The filmmaker has the control of the experiment. It’s very difficult to get control of the frontal cortex in basic scientific experiments, so we really like to work with movies in the lab.” The frontal cortex is the home to higher order processes like decision-making.

Michael Grabowski, associate professor of communication arts at the College of New Rochelle and adjunct instructor at NYU, is one such creative player with a desire to apply the rules of science to art (and vice versa).

Grabowski had developed his own Predictive Pattern Theory, asserting that we enjoy film because of patterns that are repeatedly set and broken through techniques like pacing, shots, and plot. He says, “When we recognize a pattern, we reward ourselves with a pleasurable neurochemical secretion, which pushes us to seek out more patterns. Patterns that are too easy to figure out, no reward; patterns too hard for us to detect, no reward.”

Once Grabowski heard Hasson’s talk at NYU, the filmmaker knew that he had to work with the neuroscientists involved. As he learned more about their research methods, he knew he could impart some useful knowledge in film theory and production to them.

Grabowski says, “What makes the prospect of collaboration so fruitful is the realization that filmmakers have as much to teach neuroscientists as they have to teach us.” He is now a scholar-in-residence at NYU’s CNS and hopes to weave a common thread through both film theory and neuroscience.

Applying Practice to Theory

Grabowski continues, “The history of film theory, like much of psychology, has been one of conjecture; up until recently, we have been making educated guesses as to how film works and why.” Now that tools to observe the brain itself have emerged, “We will no longer assert that a specific film sequence works according to an ideology of economics or psychology. Instead, we will directly show how the brain perceives a film.”

Of course, there are limitations to this field of study. Grabowski wonders if “Neurocinematics will ever be able to tell us what we think a film means? I doubt it, though I’m sure it will tell us which sequences provoke us, make us think, and give us pleasure.”

“We talk about getting lost in a movie, and the magic of films. Now we can observe this process in action… More than the simple stimuli brain researchers have used in the past, films simulate our life experiences and may offer a better way to see the brain work as it does in our everyday lives, rather than in a lab.”

Indeed, as fMRI and other brain imaging techniques are steadily growing in accuracy and shrinking in expense, this technique may quickly gain ground in revealing connections between shared and unique reactions to film.

Though one could imagine big studios investing mega money to produce manipulative blockbuster films, one could look to the grander vision of using film to understand how the brain works. Grabowski explains that, “There already have been proposals for using this method to test films with audiences, but I think a bit more research has to be conducted to really understand what we are seeing. In the meantime, I think that, as more studies show which sequences have what effects on viewers, filmmakers can study the construction of those sequences and incorporate those techniques in their stories. They can therefore be aware of how they are activating the brain directly through their storytelling.”

So may we learn more about who we are as individuals and as humans through neurocinematics? Quite a grand conjecture. Indeed, the field holds promise for analysis in diverse fields, from clinical research to cultural relations — the essence is about measuring brain activity of human interaction to stimuli over time. As Grabowski contends, “Lest we fool ourselves into believing we are gods, we continuously prove how human we are.” How human we all are, through our commonalities and our differences.

But for now, feel free to rely on your own brain to select your film’s soundtrack.

Further Reading:

‘Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film.’ Uri Hasson, et al, Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 2.1 (Summer 2008): 1-23.

‘Enhanced Intersubject Correlations During Movie Viewing Correlate with Successful Episodic Encoding.’ Uri Hasson, et al, Neuron 57(3): 452-62.


Further Reading: 'Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film.' Uri Hasson, et al, Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 2.1 (Summer 2008): 1-23. 'Enhanced Intersubject Correlations During Movie Viewing Correlate with Successful Episodic Encoding.' Uri Hasson, et al, Neuron 57(3): 452-62.