Lights, Camera, Brain Activity?

A suave young man acting like a French Humphrey Boggart walks down the street to chat up the young woman. They bicker and laugh at their daily life in Paris, as the young man casually asks the girl to come run away with him to Rome in order to escape the cops. This scene comes from one of my favorite black and white movies of all time, the French film by Jean Luc Godard Breathless.

A scene from Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless where we see our anti-hero Michel walking down
the streets of Paris with his American “girlfriend” Patricia

When I first saw this film for the first time in my sophomore year at Emory, it helped to inspire a deeper appreciation for film as a form of art all on its own. And I know I’m not alone in sharing that sentiment. In the limited time, I have spent here in Paris, I have understood how much the people here have an appreciation for their movies. From the Hollywood blockbusters to the more local avant-garde films, the streets and metros of Paris have never seemed to be without a shortage of advertisements for upcoming movies. Seeing how prevalent cinema seemed to be saturated throughout all cultures, got me to wondering exactly what is it about cinema makes us drawn to them? What exactly happens within our minds when we watch movies?

 

One of the interesting things I have found about movies is how watching a movie seems to bring a sense of shared experience and emotion with whoever you’re watching it with. A study conducted in 2008 by Hasson suggests that this particular shared phenomenon is not just isolated in the way that you feel, but also in the way that your brain is activated throughout the movie.

This particular study by Hasson set out to investigate the influence that exposure towards watching popular media has on evoking similar states of awareness. To test this, Hasson utilized a method known as inter-subject correlation (ISC) analysis to investigate the similarity of his subject’s brain activity throughout the experiment. ISC is a method that compares the activity of a specific region within a subject’s brain through a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) test to the activity of other subjects within the same region (Hasson et.al, 2008). Using this method, Hasson first tested for the activity of the brain between 5 humans subjects. The subjects were put in an MRI scanner while watching the opening 30 minutes of Sergio Leone’s 1996 film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The activity of the brain was recorded throughout the brain and then compared to the other subjects using ISC. After testing, Hasson found that the ISC between all subjects of the study were similar throughout multiple areas of the brain, particularly with the fusiform face gyrus which is associated with face-specific processing within the brain (Hasson et.al, 2008; McCathy et.al, 1997). This suggests that whenever we watch the same scene of a movie, our brains are similarly activated with others who also watched this exact scene. This aids itself in understanding why we seem to have this feeling of a shared experience whenever we watch a movie together with someone.

A figure from Hasson’s study: found that brain activity (this figure showing the fusiform face area) of areas throughout the brain were activated similarly across all subjects

While Hasson’s study does not go completely in depth into the neurophysiological systems that are influenced during movie watching, this question is further examined in a later study conducted by Pitcher in 2019. Within this particular study Pitcher set out to investigate the difference in brain region activity between viewing moving images vs stable images (Pitcher et.al, 2019). Pitcher conducted this study by monitoring the brain activity of 22 participants through fMRI as they watched videos of moving bodies and faces and objects and compared them to the brain activity of the subjects when they viewed static images. Pitcher found that within this study that areas such as the extrastriate body area (involved in perception of the human body and body parts) and the occipital place area (involved in scene perception) are more activated when presented with the videos compared to when they are presented with a static image (Dilks et.al, 2015; Serguei et.al, 2004; Pitcher et.al, 2019). The wider activation of these particular areas of the brain suggests how whenever we watch a movie, there is a greater sense of interactivity as you find yourself engaging to the movement of the people and scenery along with the object itself.

 

This interactivity of film with its audience is something that I continually find myself enthralled with. It’s an art form that draws us into the world of its characters, engaging us in ways that I have never fully understood. It’s a medium that utilizes itself to connect people from all over the world. From Peru to China, to the USA and Paris. This is a medium that seems to enthrall our souls and neurons.

 

So to end this off, I say that if you ever wanted to connect with someone on a deeper level, ask them to watch a movie and you’ll have an experience that connects you as deeply as the neuronal level.

 

References:

Dilks, D. D., Julian, J. B., Paunov, A. M., & Kanwisher, N. (2013). The occipital place area is causally and selectively involved in scene perception. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33(4),

 

Hasson U. Landesman O. Knappmeyer B. Vallines I. Rubin N. Heeger D. J. (2008). Neurocinematics: The neuroscience of film. Projections, 2, 1–26.

 

McCarthy G., Puce A., Gore C. J., & Allison T. (1997). Face-Specific Processing in the Human Fusiform Gyrus, J. Neuroscience 9(5)

 

Pitcher, D., Ianni, G., & Ungerleider, L. G. (2019). A functional dissociation of face-, body- and scene-selective brain areas based on their response to moving and static stimuli. Scientific reports, 9(1), 8242.

 

Serguei V A., Christine M S., Gordon L S., & Maurizio C. (2004) Extrastriate body area in human occipital cortex responds to the performance of motor actions. Nature Neuroscience 7(5)

 

Image 1: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/SqOJaGM-wQg/maxresdefault.jpg

Image 2: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Neurocinematics%3A-The-Neuroscience-of-Film-Hasson-Landesman/9360e9eeb98a3b2c1e28316d5df0073876967371

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