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?
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.
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…)