Brain Scientists on Movies: Some Answers, Lots of Questions

This article on the effect of movies on the brain was written for an audience of scientists, but it has some interesting points for those of us in the media.

I have long believed, and have taught in my classes on Film Analysis, that many of the techniques filmmakers use to guide an audience through an experience (what we call telling a story) have a foundation in neurology. Now we have scientists performing experiments with sophisticated instrumentation to find empirical data in an attempt to prove whether and to what extent that is true.

Ultimately, the article is frustrating because it offers a tantalizing tidbit and ultimately raises far more questions than it answers. And that’s certainly not a criticism; the authors themselves acknowledge they are just scratching the surface of understanding how films make an impact neurologically and there is much more to learn.

Here are some of the questions I would like to see brain scientists address in experiments:

  • How does “persistence of vision” work where, in a movie projected from film the screen is actually flashing dark in between frames, but the perception from the viewer is uninterrupted motion?
  • Is there a difference between the way the brain perceives progressive scan video (i.e. 24p) as opposed to interlaced video? A lot of people say progressive scan video is more “filmlike”; can instruments detect brain activity that would explain this perception?
  • How does the brain perceive video compared with projected celluloid?
  • I theorize (based on hints from Frank Daniel) that a gradual introduction of a character or other key cinematic element arouses curiosity, thereby activating the creative areas of the brain and effectively shutting down critical and logical brain functions, which allows for “suspension of disbelief” and a cinematic experience that has much in common with dreaming. Can brain science either confirm or disprove my theory?
  • Frank Daniel theorized (and I have adopted his theory) that film creates stronger emotional and physical identification with characters and is more highly vicarious in the way audiences experience emotional and physical aspects of the lives of the characters than literature. Can brain science shed light on this?
  • Frank theorized that in a well told story audiences progress from curiosity to sympathy to eventual empathy for the characters. Can brain scientists prove whether he was right?
  • I argue in my upcoming book series Good Stories Well Told that professional critics — that is people who go to the movies and evaluate them for a living — are neurologically incapable (or at least disadvantaged) when it comes to experiencing a movie in the same way an audience does when they go to the movie as a means of escaping from their every-day lives. Am I wrong?

I could go on. The idea of getting real empirical information on how media has in impact on the brain is very exciting — and maybe a little dangerous. Whenever people start to get the idea that they can engineer communication, the result is usually not pretty.


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