On a fundamental level, our brains are not designed for movies. At least, that's according to a new book by neuroscientist Jeffrey M. Zacks, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies.
Although it might seem odd to believe at first (after all, our brains watch, understand and enjoy movies), he actually makes quite an interesting argument, which draws on the basic elements of human understanding and interaction.
Our Brains Are Not Designed For Movies
This is of course, an undeniable fact. When our brains evolved there wasn't a cinema screen in sight - not even one of those creepy single screen places you find in small towns which are inexplicably still showing the the 1989 Batman movie.
Our brains evolved to deal with the stuff that was actually going on in front of our eyes, because, presumably, we might have to deal with that stuff in one way or another, such as running away, killing or try to have sex with it. Although on a conscious level we know that the action on the screen is not real or immediately present in the room, our deeper processes do not necessarily immediately know that.
The Mirror Rule
One of the major elements of Zacks' argument is called the 'mirror rule.' Essentially, this states we have the innate unconscious desire to imitate what we see in front of us. He claims this can apply to everyday interactions, for example people sitting across from one another often mirror the other's actions, while it also applies to movies.
Exciting action scenes can get us genuinely excited, to the point of wanting to imitate the motions of the onscreen action stars, while laughter and crying can also encourage us to also laugh and cry. The former, for example, is one of the main reasons canned laughter has been used for so long in various sitcoms (often not very funny ones).
It is this mirror rule which can make us feel so engrossed and involved in a movie. But why is this?
Zacks explains that imitating another human provides an important evolutionary advantage. Humans are an inherently social species, and copying others is a way to ensure our behavior fits with others. Furthermore, it is imperative to the basis of our ability to learn. Before spoken or written language, imitating the actions of others was the only way to pass knowledge.
The same is true for other animals. For example, chimpanzees pass on tool use through imitation, while a flock of seabirds will usually all take off if one, or a small number, if others also take off. The idea here being that imitating the others is protecting you from a shared threat.
For humans, however, it is a bit more complex, as the mirror rule can also lead to use in predicting future actions. Zacks explains:
The trick is that once a motor representation of an action is activated, you can use that representation to recognize the action, and you can use your motor experiences to make predictions about what is going to happen next. For example, suppose a man on the screen is shown grasping a doorknob. As you watch this, it activates a motor representation for doorknob grasping in your brain... If the character then walks out the door you have a head start on processing this sequence because your motor representation of walking is pre-activated.
The Success Rule
However, none of this is of any use without this second rule: the 'success rule.' This ultimately states: "Do what has worked."
Generally, the success rule is known as operant conditioning. It states that if an action of our's creates a positive outcome, we're more likely to do that action again in the future. If we do it enough, it will essentially become subconscious behavior. It is the essential basis behind the idea of 'practice makes perfect,' as well as the process used to train domestic animals.
Zacks explains that this learned behavior is not something you can simply turn off when entering a movie theater. In fact, it is partly the reason why we often jump at surprises on screen. Zacks states:
So the success rule explains why you might duck a little when the Jabberwock's head falls in Alice in Wonderland. You have a lifetime of experience with falling objects approaching our heads. A lot of them you ducked and it worked out OK. Some you failed to duck and the consequences probably weren't good. So, when it looks like something is falling toward your head, you have been trained by your previous experiences to duck.
However, Zacks also believes this rule applies to the social domain. He cites the opening of The Truman Show as illustrating this, claiming when Jim Carrey waves at the screen, you feel the impulse to wave back. This is because we have been conditioned to wave to others, as it generally creates positive and successful social situations.
Of course, we don't spend the entirety of a film physically reacting to what's on screen. That's because, although these processes are subconscious, we still have conscious control of our behavior. Zacks explains:
You’ve got to do something a little extra to override those natural responses, and keep from responding in a way that would be appropriate if you’re outside a theater, but is inappropriate when you’re watching something that can’t reach out and touch you.
The Future of Cinema
In a video interview, Zacks takes this further to suggest a knowledge and understanding of neuroscience can help future movies become even more engrossing and engaging.
We’re learning more and more about what makes a film gripping, what makes it engaging. There are a bunch of things that films can do that take the natural parameters that we experience in our everyday life and crank them up to 11, and that has the opportunity to make films that are more powerful, more engaging, more responsive than what we’ve seen before.
However, simply following the science isn't all it takes. As Zacks adds, the filmmaker also has to bring concepts of narrative storytelling and aesthetics into the mix:
[Science] can’t tell us if it’s good or bad,. It might be able to tell us something about what’s going to be popular or not. The most important thing that we can do as psychologists and neurophysiologists for filmmakers is to tell them, ‘If you make this choice, here’s what’s going to happen.’ Then as a filmmaker, you still have to decide, ‘Is this what I want to happen, is that aesthetically pleasing, is that satisfying or not?
You can watch the entire interview below:
Do you think science can really explain why we love movies?