Last night I was flipping through an old college notebook and came across this note from one of my Smith psych courses:
Romantic movie – 10% increase in progesterone
Fight scene – 30% increase in testosterone (for men with high level baseline)
Interesting, right? That the subject of a scene could change your physiology? Well, hold on to your seats, there’s more. A lot more.
Neurocinematics, a close cousin of neuromarketing, studies the brain and physiological activity of movie viewers in real-time through fMRI, EEG, eye-tracking, and galvanic skin response. According to Kevin Randall the studios aren’t talking, but neuromarketing firms have revealed a little about what their clients are using it for now (optimizing movie trailers, vetting scripts, and helping to select cast) and what they speculate neurocinematics will be used for in the near future. Just one radical idea posits that movies in the future may be dynamic – personalized and changing on the fly based on the viewer response. Your very own movie experience based on how your brain and body is responding.
Let’s learn a little more about how neurocinematics works, and what better way to do that than with a little movie? Grab your popcorn.
All very sci-fi and bleeding cutting edge and all that, but what can neurocinematics teach us about why stories are so compelling and important in the human experience, and why does it matter?
As the Technology Changes, the Stories Stay the Same
It’s interesting to note that as technology advances, one of the first things we do is create stories with it. Stories have a long history, of course. Cave drawings, dance, song, epic poetry, plays, the printing press, radio, television, cinema, blogs, YouTube, 3-D…the list, as you know, is endless. Why is it that stories have played such a central role throughout our entire history? Is it to teach and learn? To express ourselves? To entertain and be entertained? To experience a unified mind? Theories overlap and conflict, but I suspect that as we learn about how the brain processes stories we’ll see that these things are not separate at all. That learning and entertainment and drama and emotions and making sense of our own minds are all interlinked. We’ve already learned, contrary to what we thought previously, that we can’t make a decision with logic alone.
Radical discovery! Paradigm-shifting even. Emotions have taken a backseat to logic for a long period of history. From ancient philosophers to modern scientists the belief has long been that logic is superior to emotion, and if we could only rid ourselves of the base emotions we could elevate humanity.
This same thinking relegated storytelling and consumption to the arts and entertainment category. This same thinking strips funding for the arts before other programs when the budget gets tight. But imagine if storytelling turns out to be as necessary and central as history suggests.
Here’s some of what’s been discovered so far and what it might mean.
Your Brain on Stories
“It’s like you’re there!” Initial studies show that as we view certain activities on-screen, our own brain turns on activity in regions associated with that activity as though we were actually doing what we were viewing. I couldn’t find any articles connecting this to mirror neurons, but it makes sense that they would be involved. It could be that in order to understand what we’re seeing our brain activity needs to correspond, and/or it could mean that we are activating learning processes as we watch.
Emotional stories activate our “love hormone”. According to Paul Zak, an emotional story line is a potent activator of oxytocin and corresponds with feelings of empathy.
Getting volunteers to watch a 5-minute video telling the story of a 4-year-old boy with terminal brain cancer increased oxytocin levels by an average of 47 per cent compared with others who saw an emotionally neutral film about the same boy going to the zoo.
Oxytocin helps us bond with others. Those bonds aren’t just to bring us pleasure for the sake of pleasure, they bring us pleasure to ensure that we DO bond. Bonding has been imperative to our survival as a species.
We’ve only begun to understand what happens in the brain when we watch a movie or consume a story in any format. There’s much more to learn, and the implications are huge, if not controversial. Consider what William Casebeer says:
Casebeer notes that a compelling narrative can seal the resolve of a suicide bomber, and suggests that developing “counter-narrative strategies” could help deter such attackers. “It might be that understanding the neurobiology of a story can give us new insights into how we prevent radicalisation and how we prevent people from becoming entrenched in the grip of a narrative that makes it more likely that they would want to intentionally cause harm to others,”
What is clear is that stories are indeed as important as their central role throughout our history suggests. So yes, tell your story, and tell it well.
This post was inspired by the #usblogs theme: What Can We Learn From the Movies?