Your Mind on Movies

Marion Crane steps into her relaxing shower on a stormy night [1]. Her relief is palpable as the warm water cascades over her and she turns toward the showerhead with a smile. A different angle shows a blissful Marion in the foreground, but a shadowy figure lurking in the background, indicating that this peaceful moment may not last very long. Suddenly, the shower curtain is ripped open and the iconic violins tear into the soundscape, accompanying Marion’s screams. In a rapid array of close-ups and quick cuts, Marion Crane is stabbed and murdered by the shadowed stranger and left lying in the bathtub, lifeless and alone. The shower-murder scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho is arguably unparalleled in cinema history as it tested the boundaries of violence and explicitness, a technique which made the whole movie one of the most emotionally evocative films of its time [1]. As such, Psycho, one of the first modern horror films, was a smashing box office success, likely due to the revolutionary nature of the cinematic techniques used to inspire terror in scenes such as the shower-murder scene [2].


This image depicts a dark silhouette of a person wearing a suit. With their head as the view of the corner of a movie theatre, the image portrays movie-goers and a car circa the 1920s.

This image depicts a dark silhouette of a person wearing a suit. With their head as the view of the corner of a movie theatre, the image portrays movie-goers and a car circa the 1920s.


Films and their associated cinematic devices have a unique ability to elicit emotional responses from audiences that are in line with the filmmakers' creative vision and intended viewer reception. The study of the emotional and neural reactions to cinema lays the foundation for the new and emerging science of neurocinema [3]. Before the introduction of neuroimaging methods, which provide visualizations of the brain and its activity, the knowledge of an audience’s reaction to a film was limited to factors such as box office performance and subjective reports from audience members after viewing the movie [4]. With the help of neuroimaging methods like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalograms (EEG), among others, we can now record neural responses and investigate what is happening in the brain while watching a film [4]. The ability to analyze neurological reactions to cinema poses the question of whether movies can be intentionally manufactured to evoke a specific brain response across viewers. If so, what implications does this have for the future creation and consumption of cinema?


A study conducted by Uri Hasson and colleagues in 2008 to investigate emotional and neural responses to films revealed that there is a clear difference between how we process real-time videos of everyday happenings compared to the events of a film, as observed through neuroimaging [3]. The results of this study indicate a unique human neurological response to movies. Since movies often contain storylines and events that imitate reality, Hasson, one of neurocinema’s pioneers, sought to make a neural distinction between true reality and the imitated reality displayed in movies. To do so, he presented participants with a video of Washington Square Park in New York City that did not have any camera movements, plot, or distinguishable characters. It was simply a video of what one would see when sitting on a bench in the park. Then, he presented the first 30 minutes of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a 1967 Western film. With the use of fMRI, Hasson found that during the movie clip, there were synchronized brain responses amongst viewers, which were explored through a method called inter-subject correlation (ISC) analysis [3]. ISC analysis is a method used to analyze fMRI data obtained during exposure to naturalistic stimuli, like a movie [5].


One of the challenges of ISC, however, is that the reliability of the technique depends heavily on sample size, with a sample size of at least 30 participants leading to truly reproducible results [5]. A high ISC indicates that participants’ brain reactions are similar to each other at specific points during the viewing process [3]. This suggests that at those moments, the source material has a stronger grip on the audience’s cognitive processes as compared to material that produces a low ISC. During the film clip, participants had a high ISC, but during the video of the park, the ISC was low. The low ISC while watching the video of the park indicates that a simple replication of reality is not enough to elicit a synchronized response from viewers in the way that movies do [3]. Therefore, it is likely that there is something specific and compelling about the replication of reality seen in films that is not present in our perception of everyday life.


One of the features of film that distinguishes it from real life is that it is presented with flow and structure, and constructed with directorial intervention. Conventions of time and space are manipulated to help move a narrative along [6]. In Psycho, when Arbogast, the private investigator searching for Marion Crane after her disappearance, is questioning members of the community, we do not see every conversation he has in real time nor any video footage of him moving from house to house [1]. Instead, we see small clips of his conversations with people in different houses [1]. We know that he must be moving between houses and gathering information somehow, but filmmaker intervention and editing tactics allow us to assume this rather than showing his process every step of the way. During a movie, we are observing replications of reality. However, the differences that separate it from, for example, a video of everyday life, are the exact topics that neurocinema seeks to study and manipulate.

Among these differences are film strategies that are employed to trigger certain emotional responses in audiences. One of the most salient examples of this is seen when horror movies attempt to trigger our fear response by employing strategies that provoke immediate neurological responses. Dr. Lauri Nummenmaa is a researcher studying the neurobiology of horror movies [7]. In her 2021 experiment, she explored the neural mechanisms behind fear responses elicited by threats, and found that there are many factors that influence the intensity of one’s fear response, including relative distance to the threat, immediacy of the threat, and intensity of the threat. Circuits within the midbrain, a collection of brain structures found in the middle of the brain that deal with motor functions, are triggered when the threat is more immediate, such as during fight-or-flight situations [7]. The fight-or-flight response prepares the body to either stay and face the threat or attempt to escape it [8]. The frontal and prefrontal cortex structures, areas of the brain that specialize in higher order thinking and cognitive functions, are activated when we have more time to be focused on avoiding a less-immediate threat [7]. Horror movies often make use of a technique called “jump scares,” which is when something scary happens abruptly, causing audiences to jump in their seats. Jump scares take advantage of the two different fear response pathways by happening so quickly that the fight-or-flight response kicks in before you have the chance to assess the situation with your frontal and prefrontal cortex [7]. When Marion Crane’s sister, Lila Crane, approaches Mrs. Bates from behind, a jump scare occurs when she whips the chair around, only to find the skeletal remains of Mrs. Bates [1].


Horror movies target the midbrain, specifically the amygdalic response, to the exclusion of longer term processing activity in order to draw out a more powerful fear response from viewers [7]. We can begin to understand the strategies of jump scare and suspense, as well as why these aspects of horror movies are so successful at inspiring terror, by looking specifically at amygdalic activity. The amygdala is a midbrain structure that is involved in emotion and memory processing, as well as our fight-or-flight response [7]. Through neuroimaging, we can see that the amygdala is especially active while watching a horror movie [9]. Recordings of the amygdala show that it can respond to fearful information in less than 120 milliseconds, faster than the rate at which the prefrontal cortex can evaluate the context of the threat [7]. The reason jump scares in horror movies are effective in eliciting extreme emotional responses is because they occur so quickly that only our midbrain structures, including the amygdala, react initially. Afterwards, our higher order thinking structures in the frontal and prefrontal cortex analyze the situation and confirm our safety as audience members watching a movie [7].


A portrait of a woman screaming,

with her mouth open, showing pearly white teeth.

The woman also has a short haircut,

her hair matted down by water. Shower tiles

are depicted in the background.

A portrait of a woman screaming, with her mouth open, showing pearly white teeth. The woman also has a short haircut, her hair matted down by water. Shower tiles are depicted in the background.

While filmmakers certainly make decisions that elicit emotional reactions from audience members, the knowledge of how specific editing and cinematography tactics trigger chemical responses in the brain may further inspire this process. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, for example, there is an amalgamation of visual and auditory cues in addition to a carefully crafted story line and suspense effects. While Lila Crane is in the Bates’ house searching for Mrs. Bates, Sam Loomis is distracting Norman Bates in the office [1]. This demonstrates a technique called “parallel editing,” during which two scenes are alternated between by cutting, implying that they are occurring at the same time [10]. The lens view and camera movement follow Lila’s gaze as she searches the home and positions Sam and Norman opposite each other, creating tension during their argument [1]. These cinematic techniques (parallel editing, the lens view, and movement of the camera) all influence the brain regions involved with vision. In a study conducted by Yashu Wang and Yiwen Wang, participants had a high ISC throughout the viewing of Psycho, especially points of high tension [2]. Furthermore, during moments where the editing was complicated and rapid, the areas of the brain dealing with visual processing were further synchronized, implying that cinematic techniques with fast-paced visuals activate areas of the brain dealing with vision, likely due to the heightened requirement of focus elicited by these techniques. Similarly, at points where the soundtrack provided essential information about the storyline, it was the auditory regions of the brain that were activated and synchronized among participants [2].


Not only was synchronized neural activity observed during auditory and visual cues throughout the movie, but there was also evidence of emotional engagement with post-production editing such as rapid montage, which is switching between shots quickly, and cinematography choices such as close-ups [2]. Post-production editing is arguably one of the most integral parts of filmmaking, and the way a film is edited can impact neural processes that occur in viewers’ brains [11]. There are many distinct editing techniques that are specific to different genres and/or production companies. Hollywood-style editing, for example, is one that aids the film’s narrative and guides the audience through the story, typically following a character’s actions with the camera. On the other hand, MTV-style cutting is quick and relatively unrelated to the narrative. In a study conducted by Andreu-Sánchez, spontaneous blink rate (SBR) was used to investigate participants’ attention during parts of films that make use of these editing techniques. SBR was found to be inhibited during the first second after a cut, a switch from one shot to another, was made, which means that audience members’ eyes stayed open for a full second after that cut [11]. A correlated SBR amongst audience members indicates that each participant had their eyes open at specific and similar points of the movie. While this establishes that film editing can affect and guide our attention, the actual neural responses to these edits can be measured with EEG technology.


EEG technology, which detects the brain’s electrical activity, enables us to evaluate responses in the brain when certain film editing techniques are used. In the aforementioned study, MTV-style editing increased activation in visual zones, likely due to the unpredictable and spontaneity of the cuts [11]. The effects of these cuts, however, did not extend to the prefrontal zones. This contrast indicates that the viewers recognized the chaotic visual cues, but the information was not reaching conscious levels of executive function with which the prefrontal cortex is typically involved. On the other hand, Hollywood-style cutting did not have a major impact on visual zones and instead affected prefrontal zones, meaning that audiences were likely focusing on following the narrative being presented instead of visually processing chaotic editing [11]. The clear differences in neural responses to these two prevalent editing styles support the notion that post-production editing can be done with an intended effect on the audience’s attention or response already in mind.


In the future, could filmmakers essentially provoke pre-planned brain responses from their viewers? Research on horror movies and neurological fear responses show that specific audience manipulation could perhaps be a possibility. In an article on the rise of neurocinema, Kevin Randall, a writer interested in neuromarketing, postulates that filmmakers could use information about known neural responses to cinematic techniques to their advantage [12]. By using certain shots, cuts, and music, movie makers could maximize excitement in brain areas such as the amygdala or prefrontal cortex [7,11]. For example, Hollywood-style editing is used as Norman Bates cleans up the murder that was committed in the hotel [11, 1]. We see him mop up the blood, move the body, clean the furniture, and get rid of Marion Crane’s belongings in a sequential manner that helps us understand the progression of movement and plot at this moment in the movie [1]. Based on Andreu-Sancez’s findings, it is likely that this scene elicits responses in the prefrontal cortex as it aids the narrative and provides audiences with integral information to the story line [11]. In contrast, the chaotic editing used in the shower-murder scene likely triggered reactions in the audience’s visual cortices rather than prefrontal, prioritizing a more visceral reaction over a pragmatic one. These findings further support the idea that filmmakers have the ability to use these techniques during the creation of a film in order to garner their desired reaction from an audience as they watch the finished product.


Not only can neurocinema be used for the creation of a film, but it can also be used from a neuromarketing perspective. Analyzing neural responses to movie trailers can allow us to make predictions about the performance of the film once it is released [4]. The marketing perspective proposes that if audiences have positive reactions to trailers, the film will have a higher viewer turnout in theaters and likely better ratings [4].


Before the development of EEG and fMRI technology, assessing audiences’ reactions to trailers and films were mainly questionnaires conducted after the viewing [4]. In order to gain a better understanding of viewers’ biological responses to a film in real time, Christoforou attempted to use neuroimaging techniques and take a computational approach to performance prediction. The use of neural metrics generated by fMRI and EEG, allows us to predict the performance of a film on opening night and the following weekends with significant accuracy [4]. These metrics include attentional-asynchrony and cognitive-congruency. Attentional-asynchrony is calculated as the proportion of the visual stimuli (in this case, a movie trailer) on which the eye gaze of the audience members diverged from one another. Thus, if the eye gaze stream varied across audience members, there would be a high value of attentional-asynchrony [13]. In Christoforou’s study, attentional-asynchrony was shown to have a strong negative correlation with sales performance: the more participants’ eye gaze patterns diverged from each other, the worse the movie performed [4]. With an idea that the power of high-frequency bands of EEG recordings may help in predicting the performance of movie trailers, Christoforou also investigates similarities in brain activities across these frequency ranges in audience members using a cognitive-congruency metric. This aggregate metric identities and quantifies the consistency of instantaneous powers within the specified frequency bands in EEG recordings. The basic principle behind this metric is that a similarity in neural activity across participants will indicate the ability of the movie trailer to control the cognitive response of the viewer’s consistently. Christoforou’s analysis also showed a strong positive correlation between the sales performance and cognitive-congruency [4]. The idea that movies are more successful when they evoke a synchronized brain response amongst audience members is further motivation for the field of neurocinema to develop and investigate this phenomenon.


A blue puppet’s arms are being pulled back by film strips connected

to a vibrant, magenta brain hovering above the puppet.

A blue puppet’s arms are being pulled back by film strips connected to a vibrant, magenta brain hovering above the puppet.

Neurocinema has just recently begun to grow as a field of study, and the pool of available research is therefore still limited. What we have learned from investigations that utilize ISC analysis and other neural metrics is that there are certain techniques employed in film production that have a specific impact on our brains. These techniques not only impact our own brains in a unique way in relation to how we process other information, but similar brain responses are seen across groups of people. Scientific developments in neurocinematics are exciting and encouraging for filmmakers and neuroscientists alike, as they provide a new way to create and understand what happens when we consume cinematic art. The development of this knowledge could potentially result in not only films being made to garner a specific biological response from audience members, but also commercials, infomercials, and social media videos, for example, being made with intentional reactions in mind. With this understanding, all of the aforementioned methods of delivering information through a form of scripted filming may someday be constructed with the goal of mass, common brain responses amongst viewers. So, just know that you’re likely not alone when you get caught up in the suspense of a scene in which the killer is looming just beyond the translucent shower curtain. Chances are, most of the audience is as well, and it was done completely on purpose.


References

[1] Hitchcock, A., Leigh, J., Perkins, A., Bloch, R., Shamley Productions., & Paramount Pictures Corporation. (1960). Psycho. Shamley Productions.


[2]Wang, Y., & Wang, Y. (2020). A Neurocinematic Study of the Suspense Effects In Hitchcock's psycho. Frontiers in Communication, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2020.576840


[3] Hasson, U., Landesman, O., Knappmeyer, B., Vallines, I., Rubin, N., & Heeger, D. J. (2008). Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film. Projections, 2(1), 1–26. https://doi.org/10.3167/proj.2008.020102


[4] Christoforou, C., Papadopoulos, T. C., Constantinidou, F., & Theodorou, M. (2017). Your brain on the movies: A computational approach for predicting box-office performance from viewer’s brain responses to movie trailers. Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fninf.2017.00072


[5]Pajula, J., & Tohka, J. (2016). How Many Is Enough? Effect of Sample Size in Inter-Subject Correlation Analysis of fMRI. Computational intelligence and neuroscience, 2016, 2094601. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/2094601


[6] Moghadasi, A. N. (2015). Neurocinema: A brief overview. Iranian Journal of Neuroscience, 14(3), 180-184.


[7] Nummenmaa, L. (2021, March 4). Psychology and neurobiology of horror movies. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/b8tgs


[8] Cannon, W. B. (1915). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage: An account of recent researches into the function of emotional excitement. D Appleton & Company. https://doi.org/10.1037/10013-000


[9] Hudson, M., Seppala, K., Putkinen, V., Sun, L., Glerean, E., Karjalainen, T., Karlsson, H. K., Hirvonen, J., & Nummenmaa L. (2020). Dissociable neural systems for unconditioned acute and sustained fear. Neuroimage, 216.


[10] Paul, J. (2016, February 24). Master the Hollywood Technique of Parallel Editing. Retrieved from https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/parallel-editing-hollywood-way/


[11] Andreu-Sánchez, C., Martín-Pascual, M. Á., Gruart, A., & Delgado-García, J. M. (2018). Chaotic and fast audiovisuals increase attentional scope but decrease conscious processing. Neuroscience, 394, 83–97. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2018.10.025


[12] Randall, K. (2011, February 25). Rise of neurocinema: How Hollywood studios harness your brainwaves to win Oscars. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/1731055/rise- neurocinema-how-hollywood-studios-harness-your-brainwaves-win-oscars


[13] Smith, T. J., & Mital, P. K. (2013). Attentional synchrony and the influence of viewing task on gaze behavior in static and dynamic scenes. Journal of Vision, 13(8), 16–16. https://doi.org/10.1167/13.8.16





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