Projections: the Intersection Between Neuroscience and Film

As an NBB major here at Emory, I’m probably particularly biased about the brain — I think that neuroscience is the most interesting field to study, with almost infinite applications to other disciplines. Ever since the beginning of FILM 101, I’ve been curious about what film does to our brains. How does the brain react when watching a film? What psychological and behavioral concepts come into play during the movie-watching experience? I recently stumbled across a journal that aims to answer these questions. Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind is a peer reviewed publication that facilitates collaboration between scholars in film and philosophy, phenomenology, psychology, and and neuroscience disciplines. The journal publishes three times a year, and its editorial board consists of experts whose fields range from film studies to neurobiology to English.

One article that I found interesting was “Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film” by Hasson et al. A team of researchers used MRI to scan areas of brain activation while participants watched clips from movies, and the researchers manipulated what kinds of clips were shown to participants to test different ideas. For example, the researchers wanted to see whether cinematic techniques (e.g. pans, close-ups, cuts, etc.) would be more attention-grabbing than unedited clips that are meant to be “true to real life.” When comparing the brain activation in reaction to clips from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly vs. an unstructured, one-shot video of Washington Square Park, the researchers found that the one-shot video evoked less brain activity.

Furthermore, the researchers constructed a “gaze map” by tracking participants’ eye movements and found that eyes were fixated on a specific location on the screen when watching The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. On the other hand, there was much more variability when watching the one-shot video, meaning that participants focused on many different locations on the screen, or that their eyes wandered while watching the video. These results suggest that the one-shot video didn’t capture the participants’ attention well or that it didn’t evoke any specific mental states, like emotion or learning. This might provide neural evidence to something that we already learned in class: that editing and cinematography are key components to our film-watching experiences and that these techniques help lasting impressions about a film. Again, I’m likely biased since I am a neuroscience major myself doing MRI research, but I found this article to be very thought-provoking. I think that Projections is a really groundbreaking journal since it delves into an intersection that many people might not consider when watching movies, and I hope that other NBB or psychology majors might find it interesting too!

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