Saturday, September 6, 2014

She Blinded Me with Science 9/6/14

She Geek Eris drops a knowledge egg on dat ass via her segment on local radio show The Week in Geek. Here are this week's topics:

'Movies in Your Brain: The Science of Cinematic Perception'

Believe it or not, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does more than just hand out arbitrary gold statues once a year. This summer, the Academy produced an event based on explaining the scientific effect movies have on the human brain. The event took place in July, and has spawned several corresponding articles in Wired so that us little people could read up on it after the fact. At the 'Movies in Your Brain' event, the Academy put filmmakers like Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Chef) and Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Pi, Requiem for a Dream) together with some leading neuroscientists to discuss how movies catch and keep our attention, and how what we see on the screen affects our brains. 

Amount of synchronized brain activity for different filmed sequences.
It's safe to say that all of us have been to see a movie in a theater, and it's also likely that while there we were focused on the film, not the rest of the audience. If we had been, we may have noticed that the majority of the audience was probably eerily in sync with each other - even going so far as to blink at the same time. Uri Hasson is a psychologist at Princeton University who has done some pretty extensive research on brain activity in movie goers. Using fMRI scans, he's found that when watching the same piece of film, the brain activity of audience members will actually synchronize. Now, it's easy to imagine that the audio and visual areas of the brain would show activity at the same points when people are watching the same clip, but Hasson and his team found that the synchronized activity extended to other areas of the brain as well. Additionally, Hasson's subjects were shown several scenes from films or shows of varying levels of intensity, and found that the scenes which utilized more structured forms of cinematography to piece together a scene (such as a high stakes shoot out) caused more synchronized brain activity than more casual scenes (like an improvisational comedy bit). This implies that practiced filmmakers are able to intentionally, and accurately, compose a scene that control the attention of their audience.

Red "hot spots" show where viewers' eyes were drawn.
So, how do they do it? In addition to well placed musical scores, carefully crafted lighting techniques, and expertly executed camera angles and cuts, filmmakers also employ some serious science to manipulate our brains. Tim Smith, a psychologist and vision scientist at the University of London, studied the eye movements of a group of people as they watched an action sequence. He used the fast paced race scene from Iron Man 2 in which Tony Stark first battles Ivan Vanko at the Monaco Grand Prix. The scene involves your typical, Hollywood blockbuster action formula: fast cars + explosions = fun. By mapping the areas on the screen that received the most eye movement Smith found that the vast majority of viewers kept their eyes on the action itself (as seen above in the red "hot spot" on the flipping car). Other such "hot spots" occurred when characters' faces were visible, on any weapons they used, and (to a lesser extent) damaged pieces of vehicle or clothing as they trailed off screen. When Smith presented his findings to Iron Man 2's Jon Favreau, the director wasn't surprised. He pointed out that the areas in the scene which received the most focus were the only real items on the screen; everything else was CGI. According to Favreau, filmmakers are constantly attempting to predict what an audience will focus on in a scene in order to decide what they can fake. His experience has taught him that faces and physics are the hardest things to fabricate, which is why he used replica Formula 1 cars launched by hydraulics in the Iron Man 2 scene (so that the physics of their flipping and bouncing about would be accurate), and why in the movie he's currently filming, The Jungle Book, everything will be CGI except the actor's faces.

The effect of a scene from Black Swan on the brain.
Perhaps even more interesting, neuroscientist Talma Hendler from the Tel Aviv University has been studying networks in the human brain that relate to feelings of empathy. She showed volunteers intense scenes from popular movies while monitoring their brain activity via a fMRI and has identified two types of empathy, mental and embodied, each connected to a different network in the brain. Hendler defines mental empathy as the practice of "mentally step[ing] outside yourself and think[ing] about what another person is thinking or experiencing." Embodied empathy, on the other hand, would be one's ability to virtually feel what another person is feeling, like a swift kick to the groin. She found that during intense and/or emotional scenes, the networks controlling both forms of empathy were active on independent levels depending on the scene. During a particularly disturbing scene in Black Swan, for instance, the main character, Nina, begins hallucinating that she has black feathers growing under her skin. For the most part, this scene triggered activity in the network controlling mental empathy - the audience was imagining the character's mental state as she suffered a breakdown. When Nina actually pulls a feather out of her skin, however, the network controlling embodied empathy suddenly lit up as the audience had a visceral reaction to the vivid scene. Even more, further analysis of the data showed that the brain activity of the audience during that scene was strikingly similar to patterns seen in patients with schizophrenia. While this certainly doesn't mean that films are permanently affecting the mental state of their audience, it does indicate that when filmmakers do their jobs well, we are much more connected to the scenes on the screen than we realize at the time. 

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