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The Innate Irresistibility of Film

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Promotional poster for Curly Sue. Image credit: Wikipedia.

When I was seven years old, my mom took me to see Curly Sue. Though I don’t remember much of the movie, two scenes made quite the impression: the first, when James Belushi asks Alisan Porter to hit him on the head with a baseball bat, and the second, when Bill, Sue, and Grey sit in the 3-D movie theater.

At first glance, that second one doesn’t seem to pack quite the same punch–insert pun grimace here–as a little girl swinging a huge bat at a man’s forehead. But I found it irresistible. A wide shot of the entire movie theater, and all of the faces—in 3-D glasses, of course—moving and reacting in perfect unison. Heads swerve left. Heads swerve right. Gasps. Ducks. Frowns. All in a beautifully choreographed synchronicity.

What made the scene so memorable to me? I’m not entirely sure, but I can only imagine that it was awe at the realization that, at certain moments, we can all be made to experience the same emotions in similar fashion. I don’t think I ever understood before that when I watched a movie, it wasn’t just me watching and reacting. Everyone else was watching and reacting along with me. And chances are, they were doing it in much the same way.

Twenty years later, researchers are finally beginning to understand what it is that makes the present-day film experience so binding on a profound level—and why it’s often difficult for older movies to keep up. It seems that filmmakers have over the years perfected the way to best capture—and keep—viewers’ attention. Through trial, error, and instinct, Hollywood has figured out how best to cater to the natural dynamic of our attention and how to capitalize on our naïve assumptions about the continuity of space, time, and action.

A film's audience will often react to the same scene in the same way. Image credit: Shutterstock.

You’ve certainly noticed the yawn-contagion effect: if someone’s yawn happens to catch your eye, it is difficult indeed to resist the urge to yawn too. But what’s less well known is a phenomenon called blink synchronicity: if we see someone blink, we’ll likely blink right along with him. Film editor Walter Murch noticed that very thing when he was editing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. When Gene Hackman blinked, there went Murch’s eyes—and that’s precisely where he wanted to place the film cut. Cut at the blinks, and more likely than not, the viewers will perceive the action as continuous. The cut itself will go unnoticed.

In 2009, a team of researchers from Japan confirmed the phenomenon experimentally. What’s more, they found that when we’re engrossed in a movie, we tend to blink at fairly predictable moments even absent someone else’s eye movement. People who view the same film tend to synchronize their blinks – and that synchronization reflects the editing of the story.

But it’s not all about blinking. It seems that blinking is itself part of a larger phenomenon: attentional synchrony. When people watch a movie, their eyes tend to follow similar patterns. Even if a scene has no actors, it remains likely that gaze focus will follow the same trajectory between different viewers. And it’s not just the gaze: each viewer’s brain may actually be reacting in similar fashion as well.

Gene Hackman: the initial inspiration for blink synchronicity. Image credit: Chris Little, Creative Commons.

In one study, individuals watched the first 30 minutes of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly while their brains were scanned by fMRI. Researchers found that 45% of neocortical activity—including areas implicated in vision, hearing, emotion, language, and multisensory integration—was quite similar for each viewer. That’s almost half the activity of that part of our brain that coordinates our higher cognitive functions. Impressive indeed.

What’s more, if we’re asked to break a film down into important events or segments, we’ll likely do so in a predictable fashion—and not only will we choose the same breaking points as others do, but our neural activity will reflect our choices. When people viewed The Red Balloon in a scanner and then divided the film into events, cuts that coincided with significant changes in action predictably activated dorsal frontal and medial temporal areas of the brain—associated with attentional control and motion processing, respectively—in a similar fashion for each viewer.

But that’s not all. In 2001, psychologist David Gilden discovered that our minds spontaneously generate a very specific pattern of attention: something known as 1/f noise. The specifics of the 1/f ratio are less important than one characteristic in particular: it just so happens that, starting in about 1960, the shot length of various films has approached that very pattern. In other words, the patterns of shot duration in movies have become more and more like the patterns that we generate naturally in our minds.

John Hughes may not have had a day of neuroscience training, but he figured out the exact same formula when he created Curly Sue – and when he depicted on screen the precise effect that his own movie was likely having on its viewers at that very moment.

Films have tapped into something incredibly basic in the way our brains work. And there’s something remarkable about that. A tribute of sorts to the innate, deep-rooted nature of our predisposition for narrative, for a world of stories that we can all experience, share, and pass on.

Walter Murch was recently interviewed by artist Josh Melnick. Their conversation, on blinking, editing, and psychology, can be found here. Much of the research is also available in Murch’s 1994 book, “In the Blink of an Eye.”



Smith, T.J., Levin, D. and Cutting, J. E. (2012). A Window on Reality : Perceiving Edited Moving Images Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21 (2), 107-113 DOI: 10.1177/0963721412437407

Gilden, D. (2001). Cognitive emissions of 1/f noise. Psychological Review, 108 (1), 33-56 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.108.1.33

Nakano, T., Yamamoto, Y., Kitajo, K., Takahashi, T., & Kitazawa, S. (2009). Synchronization of spontaneous eyeblinks while viewing video stories Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276 (1673), 3635-3644 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0828

Hasson U, Nir Y, Levy I, Fuhrmann G, & Malach R (2004). Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision. Science (New York, N.Y.), 303 (5664), 1634-40 PMID: 15016991

Zacks JM, Speer NK, Swallow KM, & Maley CJ (2010). The Brain’s Cutting-Room Floor: Segmentation of Narrative Cinema. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 4 PMID: 20953234

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. demoninlove 6:29 pm 04/15/2012

    Your article is so amazing – unbelievable how the brain processes actions the concept of “blink synchronicity” while the audience watches a film being a part of a larger “attentional synchrony” is so interesting and also your observation or the researchers observation if you will that — hearing, emotion, language, and multisensory integration—was quite similar for each viewer- tells me that we are very much following the most basic instinct evolved in anilals and other creatures – the “Herd Instinct”, not only in action, but in thought as well. And it was very very interesting to know that :- ” That’s almost half the activity of that part of our brain that coordinates our higher cognitive functions. Impressive indeed”. Your article says that “Films have tapped into something incredibly basic in the way our brains work. And there’s something remarkable about that. A tribute of sorts to the innate, deep-rooted nature of our predisposition for narrative, for a world of stories that we can all experience, share, and pass on”!
    To continue : Today I went and saw the Movie “Hunger Games” at a theater with my friends. I had just read the book a little while ago and knew the story – and the movie was very good – in fact at many places – probably to compress a long work into a short viewing experience, there were many occasions where there was a kaleidoscopic of sputtering images merging into one another in flashes – without any narrative. The film makers left it to the judgement of the audience to understand what these sequences were all about! And the entire audience – it was quite a full house – the entire audience watched the entire movie with rapt attention. To my mind – the movie related more to the innate desire of people for action – and it is unlikely that every one understood the real meanings behind the scenes unless they had read the text earlier. But though I had read the entire thing – the film engrossed me completely. I am really happy to have read your article today – and thank you so much – I realised that to touch the basic instinct of a person – it is not really necessary to study verbose text and descriptions – the brain with its amazing cognitive intelligence works out acceptable and logical scenarios quite efficiently by itself. And fills in the blanks as the movie goes on!!!
    I see you did a lot of reading to post this very succinctly summarized article and well done Maria – Cheers for the spring and will follow your further articles
    Deepak (New Delhi)

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  2. 2. BuckSkinMan 12:02 am 04/16/2012

    This applies to written and spoken as well as cinematic story telling. The Bible: is chock full of this kind of narrative and so is the Quaran.

    And my own first thought after reading Ms. Konnikova’s article was to think back to the time when the film, Dances With Wolves, was in theaters. I took my daughter to see that film and we both talked about the complete silence of the audience during most of the film. We went back a week later and watched Dances With Wolves again: this time I paid more attention to the audience and again they were all completely absorbed and there was little movement and almost complete absence of talking.

    To professional writers, this is a familiar fact: you can generate interest in your written work by telling a story in episodic fashion. All the great films and novels use this episodic structure. First you create characters who have some appealing, attention-getting things about them and you put them in “scene one” which shows their condition. In Dances With Wolves, Lt. Dunbar starts out being wounded in a Civil War battle but ends up posted (at his request) to a remote “fort” out west. Then Kicking Bird is introduced and the two meet and form a friendship – and that friendship is the basis for the rest of the story. The primal elements of love, friendship, hatred and fear become synchronized in the story and then in the readers / audiences. Very primal stuff – which explains our readily achieved suspension of disbelief very nicely.

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  3. 3. julianpenrod 12:48 am 04/16/2012

    The “analysis” provided here is questionable to say the very least. Among other things, Maria Konnikova says “research” has indicated that people will break down a movie into the same significant scenes, yet Ms. Konnikova doesn’t seem to have experienced anyone else having the same attraction to the two particular scenes in “Curly Sue” that she mentions. Basically, the essence of the premise is encapsulated in two words from the article, “cater” and “capitalize”. The movies of today cater to insipid, shallow reaction modalities, not requiring anything that involves actual thinking or even sentimentalizing, and the capitalize on it because the segment of society who can be so easily tapped and exploited are exactly those who want movies with a minimum of thinking and a maximum of action! Note the reference to it being presumably “difficult for older movies to keep up”.
    If they can’t “keep up” now, how did they “keep up” back then?
    Shills for the New World Order, promoters of the imbecility they want in the population at large dutifully, and predictably, say things like, “Welll people back then were all morons!” Could it be that the majority of the public today are dullards?
    “Back then”, people voiced upwards of five sentences in a row of at least seven words each, many of them three syllables or more. Today, they utter a syllable or two, then scream, then a computer generated alien attacks and they blow up the scene. “Back then”, the movies had content. Today, the studios present “sincerity” films that either promote politically correct topics or have people in Edwardisn dress stagger drowsily through mansions as serving that purpose. The audiences devoted to today’s films become rabid if they have to sit through a minute of earnest discussion, just like they demand animation on computer screens to “learn” and even then, they come away with nothing!
    “Back then” there was content, meaning, substance, depth, significance in script, plotting, framing, even music and acting style. Todqay, as the article and the “research” admits, it’s all just a choreographed, programmed, calculated program of neuron excitation.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 7:55 am 04/16/2012

    The article states:
    “It seems that filmmakers have over the years perfected the way to best capture-and keep-viewers’ attention.”

    IMO, flimmakers have simply adopted computer software enhanced images and edited action illustrating the unrealistic motions of people and objects zipping in & out onscreen, performing impossible maneuvers – and that’s just the science ‘documentaries’!

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