Picture a movie theater, packed for the opening night of a blockbuster film. Hundreds of strangers sit next to each other, transfixed. They tend to blink at the same time. Even their brain activity is, to a remarkable degree, synchronized.
It’s a slightly creepy thought. It’s also a testament to the captivating power of cinema, says Uri Hasson, a psychologist at Princeton University. At a recent event hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Hasson presented his research into what happens inside people’s brains when they watch movies. His work got a receptive but somewhat wary reaction from several film makers, including Jon Favreau (Swingers, Iron Man, Chef) and Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Wrestler, Black Swan).
In one of his first forays into cinema science, Hasson found that when people watch a clip from the classic Western,The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, activity in several brain areas rises and falls at the same time in different individuals. The synched up brain regions included the primary auditory and visual cortex, as well as more specialized regions like the fusiform face area, which is important for (you guessed it) identifying faces, Hasson and colleagues reported in the journal Science in 2004.
More recently, he’s been trying to figure out what it is about movies that makes people’s brains tick together.
Not all movies, it turns out, have the same mind-melding power. Structured movies that use a lot of cinematic devices—cuts, and camera angles, and carefully composed shots designed to control viewers’ attention—do it to a greater extent than movies of unstructured reality. At the Academy event, Hasson showed brain scan data his team collected as people watched several different video clips. When people watched tense bank robbery scene from Dog Day Afternoon, there was a significant correlation in activity across nearly 70 percent of their cortex. “The movie takes over the brain responses of the viewers,” Hasson said.
A clip from the improv comedy show Curb Your Enthusiasm, on the other hand, elicited synchrony across less than 20 percent of subjects’ cortex. And an unscripted clip of reality—a video the researchers made by simply pointing a camera at a crowd of people watching a concert in a New York City park—elicited synchronous activity across less than 5 percent of subjects’ cortex.