Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mad science: This is your brain on movies. Any questions?

Wired editor and neurosci popularizer Jonah Lehrer has posted a bit on narrative structure, film, brain functions, and the "lose yourself in a film" phenomenon – which he equates with the concept of "suspension of disbelief."

He starts with an extended lamentation from New Yorker film critic David Denby on the state of basic film narrative:

"State of Play," which was directed by Kevin Macdonald, is both overstuffed and inconclusive. As is the fashion now, the filmmakers develop the narrative in tiny fragments. Something is hinted at - a relationship, a motive, an event in the past - then the movie rushes ahead and produces another fragment filled with hints, and then another. The filmmakers send dozens of clues into the air at once, but they feel no obligation to resolve what they tell us. Recent movies like "Syriana," "Quantum of Solace," and "Duplicity" are scripted and edited as overly intricate puzzles, and I've heard many people complain that the struggle to understand the plot becomes the principal experience of watching such films.

He agrees somewhat with Denby's jeremiad, then he brings the science:

Here's the requisite scientific reference, which comes from a study led by Rafael Malach. The experiment was simple: he showed subjects a vintage Clint Eastwood movie ("The Good, The Bad and the Ugly") and watched what happened to the cortex in a scanner. To make a long story short, he found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, which was virtually universal. (The title of the study is "Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natural Vision".) In particular, people showed a remarkable level of similarity when it came to the activation of areas including the visual cortex (no surprise there), fusiform gyrus (it was turned on when the camera zoomed in on a face), areas related to the processing of touch (they were activated during scenes involving physical contact) and so on. Here's the nut graf from the paper:

"This strong intersubject correlation shows that, despite the completely free viewing of dynamical, complex scenes, individual brains "tick together" in synchronized spatiotemporal patterns when exposed to the same visual environment."

But it's also worth pointing out which brain areas didn't "tick together" in the movie theater. The most notable of these "non-synchronous" regions is the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with logic, deliberative analysis, and self-awareness. (It carries a hefty computational burden.) Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that, when we're engaged in intense "sensorimotor processing" - and nothing is more intense than staring at a massive screen with Dolby surround sound - we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such "inactivation" allows us to lose ourself in the movie.

Finally, Lehrer makes a test-balloon hypothesis of his own:

What does this have to do with tricky cinematic narratives? I'd argue that the constant confusion makes it harder for us to dissolve into the spectacle on screen. We're so busy trying to understand the plot that our prefrontal cortex can't turn off. To repeat: this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does go against the fundamental experience of watching a movie. It's a formal innovation that contradicts the essence of the form. We can't afford to "lose ourselves" in the movie because we're already lost.

I'm not sure I find this prelim hypothesis entirely convincing. Still, I think it's interesting. What I do like about it is that it shifts attention from content to form. So many of the debates in the horror blog-twit pro-am focus on content issues: the divisions between genres, the use of the supernatural, "showing the monster," etc. It would be interesting to consider flicks that, say, regardless of their content, followed the same narrative structure. This isn't to say that the content is irrelevant or not worth discussing, but it may be overvalued in our current conversations.


K. R. Seward said...

FWIW, only seen Syriana of the three puzzle plot examples mentioned, but got lost/involved in it.

Wasn't a fave but it worked just fine.

General movie fan here not a horror buff--my character empathy and openness to pick up a few plot pieces at a time may just mean I don't_try_to overtax or engage the logical brain processes. So the good ship Suspension of Disbelief sails on.

Re studying narrative form, check local library for Story by Robert McKee. Very interesting book on traditional scriptwriting. The bibliography may point out something too.

Sasquatchan said...

I wonder how this works into TV as well.. That there's always a demand for non-thinking shows (ie something to zone out to), yet shows like LOST (never seen an episode, so I might be on thin ice here..) that make no sense whatsoever, yet have folks hooked trying to "figure it out".

CRwM said...


Thanks for stopping by.

It seems to me that there's a several things the theory misses.

As you mentioned, there are certainly elaborate and puzzle-like flicks that people can get lost in.

I also think it misses something that comes up a lot in horror fandom - how do we know when to not bother trying to make sense of a movie? Though there are movies were there is debate about whether the films "make sense" or not, I'd say there are considerably more flicks - especially in the sort of modo flick subset - that fans understand ahead of time not to bother puzzling out. In such flicks, the inconsistencies are part of the incompetence - or "genius" - of the filmmaker and aren't there to be resolved. If the operation of these parts of the brain is involuntary, then how do these film's get around the problem?

There's other things that don't quite fit. Still, some food for thought.

Curt Purcell said...

Any sort of "connoisseur" is able to recognize basic features, make basic distinctions, and respond appropriately in a fairly automatic fashion. It's not voluntary, just a matter of familiarity.

I'm curious, though--what are these formal questions you have in mind that you wish the "horror blog-twit pro-am" would spend more time addressing?

CRwM said...


I don't know that you're granting the issue of inactivation the full weirdness that it entails. If any connoisseur can shift the boundaries of their inactivation, then - by extension - the issue is not that we're reacting to certain kinds of stimulus, but that we're simply habituated to specific things.

Arguably, a child raised on a strict diet of art house fare would then find themselves "puzzling" their way through, say, Shane.

Furthermore, when I read a review from, say Love Train to the TE or Mad Mad etc. Movies, the surface elements, including flubs and goofs, seem to be highlighted. In these cases, the discontinuities of the work are not ignored. "Getting into the movie" requires noticing and celebrating them. Fans of The Room, for example, elevate what they know to be instances of weak or meaninglessly confusing filmmaking of the film to the level of ritual and play. They aren't ignoring them, and they aren't frustrated by them.

I feel there is a difference, but I also feeling that I am not expressing it well. PI think I haven't fully conceptualized it in my mind yet.

Anywho, sorry about the rambling.

To answer your question, I'd find very little discussion of form these days. Perhaps I just hang out in the wrong blogs. Most horror criticism seems to focus on content or meta-stuff: genres, story elements, biz personalities, theories about what brings the scares.

Some more formal discussion would be nice. For example, you've done some great comic-centric posts on using the human form and the use and abuse of exposition boxes. You've mostly used horror stuff to do this, but you've also applied it to chick-funnies, superhero tales, and sciffy stuff. That sort of formal detail is often lacking in the horror-centric blog-twitter pro and amateur league ("horror blog-twit pro-am") discussion of film.

I'm not saying we should all become tiny little Bordwell's or anything, but perhaps it would add to the overall conversation and move us past some of the famous debate sticking points.

Curt Purcell said...


I'm not clued in enough to the scientific specifics to speak to the issue of inactivation. But when you ask how fans can take something in stride that others would find confusing or distracting, aren't we basically talking about the fluency that tends to result from learning and practice?

From what I've heard, adults who've never read comics before have difficulty figuring out how to read them. You and I can get lost in them, but even at a pretty significant level of immersion are still able to appreciate conventional aspects that a non-comics-reader would have to puzzle over (whether it's something like a fancier-than-usual page layout or the way energy is represented by Kirby krackle), and might make a point of mentioning such aspects in a review. Again, I won't presume to say anything too specific about this, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some differences between a comics fan and someone who's never read a comic before, if you gave them comics to read and monitored their brain activity/inactivity.

Does that address what you're asking about, or are we talking past each other here, or am I not getting something that you still see as a problem?

Now, turning to the issue of blogs discussing form--

It sounds like you have some definite ideas about the sort of things you'd like to see discussed, so why not just go ahead and start discussing them? You certainly have my permission. ;-)

Besides posting about that stuff here on your blog, you're also a member in good standing of LOTT-D; you can propose topics just like any of the rest of us. I'm still not sure what you have in mind as a "famous debate sticking point" that could possibly be resolved or advanced if the focus of debate shifted from content to form, but if you can formulate it as a question or topic, maybe we can all have a stab at it.