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.
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.
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."
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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
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