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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 

Your Brain On Film


Your Brain On Film

Forest Conner

One of the hardest things to do is convince someone that experiences can be (at least partially) objective. This is especially true in the arts, where the most passionate fans and critics tend to have deeply held personal beliefs about the qualities of the art they observe. This makes it especially difficult for someone like myself who tries to find the commonalities within film and use them to predict what someone may like or dislike.

There is no way that I can predict with any real accuracy how another human being will respond to a film, right? I mean, since we're all such unique, precious snowflakes.

As it turns out, our brains present the opposite argument. In much the same way our occipital lobe is active as we sense visual activity, so to do certain areas of our brains respond as we watch a film. And according to Uri Hasson, a psychologist at Princeton, they activate in pretty much the same way for all of us.

Hasson showed an audience a scene from (the incredible) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and measured the viewers brain activity using a functional MRI. He saw that the same parts of the participants' brains lit up when responding to the film. When doing this experiment with Dog Day Afternoon, "there was a significant correlation in activity across nearly 70 percent of [the particiants'] cortex." 

What does this really mean? Well, much of the similarities in brain activity are related to things like visual and auditory cues. Audiences of highly directed narrative films tend to look at the same places and listen for the same things all at the same time. Not quite as foreboding as it first appears, but there are plenty of other areas of the brain (more devoted to high level thought) that are also activated.

People often scoff at the idea that films have personalities, and as such can be parsed into chunks that can be used to find an audience. But consider the fact that, for some films at least, most people have identical patterns of brain activity. And if we determine that someone enjoys a film that activates those areas of the cortex, could we assume that different films with similar effects would also be enjoyed by that viewer?

Of course I'm not advocating that everyone step into an fMRI machine in order to get movie recommendations. To me, this study simply provides the foundations for the idea that, maybe, audiences are more similar to each other than they are different and there is a better way to explore those similarities.