How Movies Control Your Brain

Alfred Hitchcock once said of films that “creation
is based on an exact science of audience reactions” Many years after that shower scene, audience
reactions are becoming an exact science – Neuroscientists are looking at how we watch movies to figure
out which styles of filmmaking have maximum control over viewers’ brains. It’s popularly
being called “neurocinema”. In one study, participants watched 30 minutes
of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in an fMRI machine, so their brain activity was being
recorded. The researchers compared the pattern of activity
in participants’ brains and found it was remarkably similar. During particular scenes of the movie,
activity in certain brain areas increased and decreased at the same time across the
participants and their eyes tracked the same areas of the screen. The researchers suggested
it was an indication those scenes were more engaging. A follow up study compared the participant’s
brain activity watching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to watching other things–like
an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and a real-life
10 minute unedited shot of a New York City park. The researchers again used the similarity
of the participant’s brain activity as a measure of how engaging the scenes were. They
found the Hitchcock episode evoked similar brain activity across all viewers in over
65% of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain. Similar activity was seen in 45% of
the cortex for the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but only 18% for Curb Your Enthusiasm and
5% for the real-life New York City park. The study shows that Hitchcock could orchestrate
the responses of different brain regions in a timely fashion across all viewers. Of course,
fMRI can’t evaluate the artistic and aesthetic value of a movie. And some movies and TV shows
aim to control the audience’s reaction more than others. It depends on the director’s
style and intentions. But soon we could see the audience sitting
in the directors seat. It’s been suggested films of the future will be so interactive
that they will respond to your brain activity while you’re watching them – so they can
be the most engaging. It’s like the ultimate choose your own adventure… that could end
up being the true definition of a horror film. Neurocinema can objectively measure some of
the entertainment value and audience reaction to movies, TV shows and advertisements; and
we can use the results to refine how engaging and emotionally effective they are. But it can’t tell us who will walk away with
this year’s Oscars — although big data can. Check out Forward Thinking to find out
how something as seemingly unpredictable as an Oscar can be forecast using the right methodology. There’s a whole new meaning to lights, camera,
action. Let me know what you think – and your Oscar
picks – in the comments. And if you don’t already, subscribe to BrainCraft for a new
brainy episode every Thursday.

41 thoughts on “How Movies Control Your Brain

  1. All I know is that my brain is happy everytime I watch braincraft. ^_^

    My picks for Oscar would be The Imitation Game and Theory of Everything. ^_^

  2. Birdman, Birdman, Birdman… but probably won't win the best picture, because that Oscar usually tends to go to feel-good movies. :-/

    On interactive movies; I don't think it won't happen. I watch movies to see the perspective/message of the director and I wouldn't want my thoughts to influence that. Gaming however is starting to become a new artform of storytelling, where I can see this kind of interactivity flourish much better.

  3. I glanced at the references and it seems like cursory research since the second publication is the only one that I could find a direct figure of the number of participants (5) in the study. Given the tiny and probably highly limited demographic of the sample size, I'm guessing that the extrapolation made can only be guessed at of only the those that share the subject's demographics. I know I've seen research that people of significantly different cultural backgrounds (East vs. West) often look at images differently, so I'm curious what a larger cross-cultural study might find. Perhaps we might be able to learn what kinds of imagery will impact different demographics in different ways and learn a little more about how different environments can shape our perceptions–and entertainment interests–differently.

  4. Lol. The Oscars are "seemingly unpredictable" ? I haven't seen any if the nominees and I can tell you that Best Picture will probably go to a biopic. God, I hate, hate, hate biopics.

  5. Please read on if you're reading this. I really need your help and support. I make top ten lists of anything you think of. I make videos every other day. Please take out the time to check out my channel. I would really appreciate it!

  6. What were the demographics of the study?
    I wonder if there is a novelty resistance response to cinematic immersion. Particularly, if younger more media savvy generations are easier or harder to captivate.

  7. Fantastic idea. However I don't see people hooked up to mri do choose the scary or loving moments. It would cost billions to shoot unless it was cgi movies (which would take twenty years to develop the quick response to Develop an scenario to every individual. Or it would be brain scans to forecast better movies until the time where tech' would come around to that desire. It's better not knowing. Shows brilliant by the way


  8. Did they do any studies of people watching porn? Are those becoming more interactive as well? Can we control the outcomes in those?

  9. I'm a video producer and film maker. This is 100% true, we think in ways to control our audience on a psychology level from color, lighting, camera angles, sounds, and editing.

  10. Absolutely fascinating video. Although I think the researchers may be over stating their case when they say "Our results demonstrate that some films can exert considerable control over brain activity and eye movements.". However I would argue that the activity is a combination of neural functions working at once: mirror neurons simulating activity, affective systems estimating arousal levels (reward, threat) and other systems following narrative. Also eye movements should be roughly the same, particularly when a director prompts an individual to a feature, usually with movement or light. Rather than being controlled these systems are all assessing the environment they are observing, thats what the brain does everyday for everything its just films are designed to be more mentally arousing.

    Oh and the differences between say Psycho and Curb Your Enthusiasm in terms of activity can be accounted for by the fact that the later is comedy and therefore more conceptual and less visually based.

    Your video is an excellent review of the journal article though.

  11. This is very interesting. Especially with VR headsets slowly gaining wide adoption, it may be possible in the future that movies will not only respond to our brains stimulation, but also that the viewer will actually see the events through the eyes of the characters. Even more interesting is the idea of movies and video games merging to provide a realistic simulation of a movie. The future is truly exciting

  12. a couple of years off, I know, but – The audio seems very different here (muted?) compared to other videos.

  13. Is the music from 0:55 to 1:00 from Michael Jackson's dangerous while he performed the inlaid moonwalk part?

  14. If the movie "It" was trying to control me into fear, "it" failed. I watched it from 12 AM to 2 something and I felt like the movie was trying to insult my intelligence. I have never seen anything on TV that made me feel threatened or personally engaged in the show. That's why my go-to TV genre is comedy – it comes from an objective standpoint (if it is truly funny.) I think I'm too logical for movies (or anything) to control my brain. Since I have Asperger's syndrome, I literally need a completely logical path when learning. Combine an eidetic memory with natural ability (almost requirement) to identify logical fallacies, and you get someone who is very hard to manipulate, and pretty stubborn at times.

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