Enjoying Movies, with Science of Course!

With all the hype going on for the new Star Wars film release in a couple of weeks, it’s a good idea to also consider why we enjoy movies, from a scientific point of view. What makes us go to a crowded movie theater, sit next to a smelly Wookie, and watch an ultrafast flickering succession of still photographs, and enjoy it?

A frame from the Lumiere brothers’ movie “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1895), which is said to have made audiences jump in shock. Via WikiMedia.

This was also the question neuroscientist Jeffrey Zacks asked himself in a book published last year, called Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press, 2014). Basically, as a recent Futurity article points out, what makes those images so fascinating is that they appear as real, to our evolved brain, as the actual world itself. Movies take advantage of this 3.5 billion-year brain evolution, according to Zacks.

Zacks describes two rules that help us immerse in a movie that we also see in other evolutionary discussions. They are the “mirror rule” and the “success rule.”

The mirroring rule is about persons imitating other people subconsciously and non-verbally. It’s not imitating, because that’s a conscious effort. For me the best example is the contagiousness of a yawn; do it and soon several people around you will also start to yawn. In fact, while writing this I couldn’t suppress a yawn either!

That mirroring is explained by the working of one of the most amazing brain components, namely mirror neurons. They also apply to other animals. They do exactly what their name implies, though some of it is still speculative: they fire not only when an animal acts, but also when observing said act in another being. When watching a movie therefore, these neurons fire as if we are ourselves involved in the movie, leading to greater empathy and emotional involvement (even crying).

As a sad counterpart, this also leads according Zacks to a concerning conclusion: violence shown in films makes us more aggressive, and so does violence in videogames. I’m not sure I agree with that (I’ve seen different studies) but it makes one think about it at least.

source: WikiMedia

A film crew producing something for your mirror neurons. Source: WikiMedia.

The second rule, a bit related to the first one, is the success rule. Or more poetically: “surviving the sabre-tooth tiger in the underbrush.” (source: George Hrab but he might have gotten it from other people).  This is what scientists call the Agency Detection: we developed in our brains the tendency to jump at any rustling in the underbrush, because it might be a sabre-tooth tiger. If a person were overconfident and didn’t jump that often, he had a higher chance of getting killed if it was indeed a predator. A higher change of getting killed means less chance to pass on genes, and the behavior gets selected against in favor of more “jumpy” genes.

In the same way, Zacks explains in the Futurity article, we also duck a bit when we see objects approaching us onscreen. We do it, and it is difficult to avoid doing it, because it really works in real life. By performing actions that “work” in real life—especially fight or flee responses to danger—we get immersed even more in the action on screen, even though none of the images can really impact us. It even becomes difficult to distinguish reality from what we saw on television, because the images onscreen get “blurred” with the images from our senses. The best example is the train arriving in Ciotat station in a 1895 screening. A more recent example and a bit more insidious is how the film JFK impacted public perception of Kennedy’s assassination, encouraging people to imagine it as the result of a conspiracy of CIA, FBI and the military and a subsequent cover-up.

To be certain, it’s not just the images that make us enjoy movies. Filmmakers have honed their skill for over a century, and the enjoyment of a film depends not only on the shot itself but also on sound effects, music, editing, make-up, etc.

This scientific approach has the advantage of tying it all back to evolution. One note though: it doesn’t explain what makes a good movie, and why my wife enjoys Star Wars and I don’t. Sorry sweetheart… it’s Star Trek for me! (Some things are probably best left unexplained…)

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website: www.puam.be
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15 Responses to Enjoying Movies, with Science of Course!

  1. Bill Morgan says:

    “a bit more insidious is how the film JFK impacted public perception of Kennedy’s assassination, encouraging people to imagine it as the result of a conspiracy of CIA, FBI and the military and a subsequent cover-up.”

    Oh really. Try reading:
    They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to As Assassinate JFK by Jesse Ventura.
    JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters by James Douglass.
    The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ by Roger Stone.

    Are your eyes wide shut? Do you not see the obvious? Over 80% of Americans believe there was a Conspiracy.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      The number is actually about 60%, not 80. And that doesn’t mean anything. More than 80% of people in Iran believe in Allah, whereas more than 60% of people in France believe in some kind of God, and about 80% of Indians believe in many gods. Lots of people don’t believe astronauts went to the moon and many also believe the Earth revolves around the sun. Belief isn’t evidence. And those books don’t have any evidence either.

      And it is true that “JFK” resulted in public pressure that ended up with the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. Just because there’s no reason to believe in a JFK conspiracy doesn’t mean that someone’s eyes are shut. It just means that there’s no reason to believe in a conspiracy.

  2. Bill Morgan says:

    Yes notify me.

  3. Bill Morgan says:

    Noah, “And those books don’t have any evidence either.” Obviously, you have not read the 3 books. I have and about 200 plus other books on the JFK assassination which I have researched for over 25 years. You don’t have a clue what you are talking about. The evidence and facts are overwhelming that the Government did two things. The Government lied to the people and covered-up the crimes. We have a corrupt Government made up of lying politicians. You can’t believe anything they say.

    • Ray says:

      The problem is that non-critical thinkers like you will always find a way to believe in weird things no matter how bad the evidence is. Worse, non-critical thinkers don’t know what constitutes actual evidence in the first place.

      And… Jesse Ventura? Really? You may as well be getting your weather reports from Punxsutawney Phil… if you aren’t already.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      For the first link: were there any crackpot conspiracy mongers you can point to who claimed that some of these things existed, predicted only by pictures in ads and on dollar bills and stuff like that, and were later shown to be true? Because none of these seems to follow the kind of “predictions” used by conspiracy mongers.

      For the second: some of these are not false flag attacks, meaning they weren’t staged by a government, but were used to justify unrelated government actions. So they’re kind of padding the list here. Can you connect anyone in power after the Church Committee hearings—which uncovered a lot of the CIA’s dirty dealings—with any attack that has happened in the past 15 years? I mean, why should we use something that happened in the 1950s as evidence for a conspiracy in 2015? There were different people, different enemies, different motives, different tactics, different agencies. Many of the attacks listed here weren’t even conducted by the US, but were conducted or manipulated by authoritarian governments. Why should that be considered evidence of anything here?

      The third: this is just a repetition of the second source.

      The fourth: this is just a repetition of the first, second, and third.

      The fifth link: a repetition of the other ones.

      I’ll just point out here that saying something over and over doesn’t make it more true or better evidence.

    • Ray says:

      Your reasoning comes up a bit short. First, no one denies that conspiracies can be real. The question is whether or not YOUR theories are real. What you’ve done here is to toss in a particularly bad-smelling red herring. Second, noting real conspiracies doesn’t lend any credence to your conspiracy theories – you still have to prove your contentions. No theory rests on the legs of another theory. Each and every theory has to have its own legs. Distracting us by bringing in irrelevant conspiracies is changing the subject and perhaps admitting (quite accidentally) that your theories have no merit.

      • Bill Morgan says:

        Ray, You obviously trust and believe the Government. I don’t trust liars and most of our politicians, who run the Government, are liars. “America has the best politicians in the the world, that money can buy.” Will Rogers What do Bush, Clinton, Obama, etc. have in common? They are all bought and paid for liars. Bill

        • Ray says:

          But you obviously trust and believe people who have an axe to grind against the government and who ignore real knowledge in favor of ideas that have already been proven wrong. People like you live in a fairy tale world where only things that are in agreement with your world view are allowed in. You have no way to honestly evaluate claims and you have no interest in that anyway. You only seek confirmations for your beliefs and as we already know, when a person doesn’t know how to think critically, he will always find those confirmations – even if his ideas are completely wrong.

          Has it never occurred to you that your acceptance of so many conspiracy theories might be an indication that this whole thing is more about your own psychology than it is about reality? No, of course it hasn’t. That thought could never make its way through the filters of your fairy tale world.

          • Bill Morgan says:

            Everything you say about me, you can say about yourself. You have mental problems if you believe the Lies of the Politicians who run the Government. No one should trust the Government as Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Paine, etc. warned us. You are the one in Fairy Tale Land if you believe the Sociopaths in the Government.

          • Ray says:

            I’m not believing anything. Far from it – I’m asking for evidence. As Carl Sagan once said: I don’t want to believe, I want to know.

          • Bill Morgan says:

            Science verses Politics

            In Science, you look for facts and evidence to prove a hypotheses. In Science, you can do that. I’m not talking Science. I’m talking Politics and Human Nature. It’s more difficult to get Hard Facts and Evidence in Politics and Human Nature, unless you work for the FBI or you are a Prosecuting District Attorney who has the resources to do detailed investigations to find Evidence and Facts to convict someone in a Court of Law.

            When you have multiple sources who say something happened, and it’s the same story, that story has credibility. Does it prove it happened? No it doesn’t. I have served on three juries in my life. Two were criminal cases and one as a civil case. The District Attorney presents his case and then the Defense presents its case. Then the Jury retires and reaches a verdict, unless it’s a hung jury. That’s the process we have to follow when dealing with Politics and Human Nature. We listen to sources who claim they have witnessed something. When we find multiple sources who have the same story, we give that story credibility and then decide what we want to believe.

            Believe what you want. I don’t believe the Government who feeds us lies and propaganda. All Governments do this. If you want to believe the Government and the National News Media tell us the truth, go right ahead. I don’t.

          • Ray says:

            This is not science versus politics. It’s about how we reason. And it’s about maintaining a single standard across the board.

            The main point is that it shouldn’t be about belief in the first place. That’s why I spoke of evidence.

            I have also been on three juries and I know that you don’t have to believe anything any witness says – no matter how many of them say the same thing. The truth isn’t determined by popular vote.

            “Believe what you want…”
            I guess you missed the part where I said I don’t want to believe…

  4. Rolando says:

    When I watched Jurassic Park (was it the first?), in the scene where the two kids are in the kitchen hiding from velociraptors, both I and a friend raised our legs when the boy just manages to be pulled up in time for the dinosaur to miss him, we may also have screamed a little …

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