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.

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 m