Thursday, April 8, 2010

Neurocinematics: the neuroscience of film

Ever been deeply absorbed in an exciting movie with an interesting plot, only to find yourself asking after the film finishes: “what was with that awful ending?!”

Well recent advances in neuroscience may be able to help ensure that a movie’s quality is kept high throughout the whole film. Israeli neuroscientist Uri Hasson, now working at Princeton University, has pioneered the new field of neurocinematics, the neuroscience of film. In 2004, Hasson published a seminal paper in Science introducing a new method of inter-subject correlation (ISC) for analyzing brain activity obtained from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while people watch films and have their brains scanned. Since then, Hasson and researchers around the world have used this method to provide insight into how our brains respond to movies and television shows (see here and here for comprehensive reviews).

Studying brain activity while someone watches a film presents several challenges. Neuroscientists usually use fMRI to investigate the brain’s reaction to simple stimuli such as static images or text. However, analysis methods that are used for those types of studies cannot be employed to provide meaningful information about the brain’s response to something as complex as a movie. Using Hasson’s method of ISC, researchers can measure similarities in brain activity across viewers, thereby giving insight to how universally captivating a film is. The method has already been used to study the classic film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the 2005 Academy Award-winning Crash, as well as the television shows Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The hope for the future is that neurocinematics will be able to help movie producers maximize the quality of their films. For example, film-makers could create many different cuts for a movie’s possible ending, and the final cut could be selected based on the information provided by measured brain responses to the different cuts.

If this kind of talk reminds you of my previous discussion of neuromarketing, it’s because neurocinematics has the potential to turn into a lucrative business. But first neurocinematics will have to face issues that are being discussed within the context of neuromarketing. ISC as a form of fMRI analysis is still in its infancy, and researchers don’t yet completely understand what it tells us about film quality. Additionally, can neurocinematics provide information about our thoughts and emotions evoked by movies that other methods can’t? And will film-makers put their faith into neurocinematics and let it decide how they should craft their artwork?

Unlike other forms of neuromarketing, though, the cost factor won’t likely hold movie-makers back. Yes, fMRI is considered to be relatively expensive for its general purposes. But the typical big-budget Hollywood film costs over $100 million to make, and almost as much is spent on marketing. Why not pump some of those marketing funds into an objective measure of whether your film is good or not?

The progress of this innovative field will be interesting to follow. A peer-reviewed scientific journal for neurocinematics, titled Projections: The Journal for Movies and the Mind, already exists and is promoting scientific interest in film. The unprecedented success of the recent film Avatar might drive researchers to investigate the effects of 3D films on the brain. We might even see neurocinematics companies soon opening up in Hollywood, promising film-makers the next Oscar winner.

Don’t expect neuro-approved movies to blow your mind in ways that older movies never could. Classic films will always remain classic, and the art of film will remain an art...

...with a little science giving it a hand.

1 comment:

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