How films synchronise audience’s brains (Wired UK)

Coloured areas indicate brain regions with synchronous activity as people watched a clip of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Uri Hasson

Picture a cinema, packed for the opening night of a blockbuster
film. Hundreds of strangers sit next to each other, transfixed.
They tend to blink at the same time. Even their brain activity is, to a
remarkable degree, synchronised.

It’s a slightly creepy thought. It’s also a testament to the
captivating power of cinema, says Uri Hasson, a psychologist at
Princeton University. At a recent event hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences, Hasson presented his research into what happens inside
people’s brains when they watch movies. His work got a receptive
but somewhat wary reaction from several film makers, including Jon
Favreau (Swingers, Iron Man, Chef) and
Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Wrestler, Black

In one of his first forays into cinema science, Hasson found
that when people watch a clip from the classic Western, The
Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
, activity in several brain areas
rises and falls at the same time in different individuals. The
synched up brain regions included the primary auditory and visual
cortex, as well as more specialised regions like the fusiform face
area, which is important for (you guessed it) identifying faces,
Hasson and colleagues reported in
the journal Science
in 2004.

More recently, he’s been trying to figure out what it is about
movies that makes people’s brains tick together.

Not all movies, it turns out, have the same mind-melding power.
Structured movies that use a lot of cinematic devices — cuts, and
camera angles, and carefully composed shots designed to control
viewers’ attention — do it to a greater extent than movies of
unstructured reality. At the Academy event, Hasson showed brain
scan data his team collected as people watched several different
video clips. When people watched tense bank robbery scene from
Dog Day Afternoon, there was a significant correlation in
activity across nearly 70 percent of their cortex. “The movie takes
over the brain responses of the viewers,” Hasson said.

A clip from the improv comedy show Curb Your
, on the other hand, elicited synchrony across less
than 20 percent of subjects’ cortex. And an unscripted clip of
reality — a video the researchers made by simply pointing a camera
at a crowd of people watching a concert in a New York City park –
elicited synchronous activity across less than 5 percent of
subjects’ cortex.

Coloured areas indicate brain regions whose activity was synchronised as people watched four different video clips, that ranged from highly structured movies (left) to unstructured reality (right). Click the image for a larger version

Uri Hasson

On the second evening of the two-night event, Aronofsky and his
writing partner and sometimes co-producer, Ari Handel, were on
stage with the scientists as Hasson presented the results of a
small study he’d done with a clip from Black Swan. It
comes near the end as Nina, the main character portrayed by Natalie
Portman, is unraveling. She hallucinates black feathers poking
through the skin on her back. It’s an intense scene, and like that
of Dog Day Afternoon, it seemed to get nearly 70 percent
of the cortex firing in synch across subjects.

“They do look very similar, but it’d be more surprising if they
didn’t,” said Handel, who earned a PhD in neuroscience at New
York University before getting into movies. “If you’re watching a
movie, that’s your entire sensorium and your feelings.” If people’s
brains were out of synch during a movie, Handel suggested, that
might be a bad sign that their minds were wandering. One person
might be thinking about the call they need to make, while another
contemplates making a popcorn run.

“It’s a scary tool for the studios to have,” Aronofsky said.
“Soon they’ll do test screenings with people in MRIs.” The audience
laughed, but it didn’t seem like he was joking, at least not

Favreau had been similarly intrigued and wary of the idea
of tracking audience engagement with brain scans. “The whole trick
of film making is hacking those parts of the brain that keep people
entertained,” he said. But that’s not the only goal for most film
makers, he added. “How do you use all this to smuggle in something
that’s a little more transformative? Ideally, you want to present
something a little more elusive than what the statistics at this
point can identify.”

Hasson readily agrees that his fMRI metrics don’t measure the
quality of a movie. But he thinks some metrics might come
closer than others. For example, he suggests scenes that
consistently engage people’s frontal cortex (which has roles in
abstract thought and other “higher” cognitive functions) or parts
of the limbic system (which deals with emotion) may be better
indicators of the type of elusive quality Favreau mentioned. Unlike
the primary auditory and visual cortex, which track what’s
happening in a movie frame by frame, some of these other areas seem
to be integrating what’s happening over many minutes, Hasson says.
“They might be responding to more interesting aspects of the

He envisions filmmakers using brain scans to gauge how viewers’
brains respond to different aspects of a movie. Does the soundtrack
cause people’s auditory cortex to synch up? Does an emotional scene
take control of their limbic system?

What to do with that information would, of course, be up to the
individual filmmaker, Hasson said. The Russian filmmaker Andrei
Tarkovsky, whose films were known for their ambiguity and lack of
conventional structure, might use it differently, than, say, the
documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who applies conventional
cinematic devices and narrative structures to real life topics. “If
you want people to think alike and be in synch, you could use this
tool,” Hasson said. “If you want people to think differently, you
could also use it.”

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29 August 2014 | 9:43 am – Source:

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