These two rules let movies trick your brain

"There are a bunch of things that films can do that take the natural parameters that we experience in our everyday life and crank them up to 11," says Jeffrey M. Zacks, "and that has the opportunity to make films that are more powerful, more engaging, more responsive than what we've seen before." (Credit: iStockphoto)

A new book looks at what science call tell us about movies, including why we cry, flinch, duck, and tap our toes according to the action on the screen.

How is it that a patch of light flickering on a wall can produce experiences that not only engage our imaginations but also feel so real? What’s really happening in our brains as we immerse ourselves in the lives being acted out on screen?

Neuroscientist Jeffrey M. Zacks explores these questions in his new book, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press 2014).

“One of the striking things about understanding movies is that you come into the theater with the brain that you evolved over three-and-a-half billion years to understand the real world and, for the most part, your brain just treats what it’s seeing on the screen as if it were real,” says Zacks, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Our brains didn’t evolve to watch movies. Movies evolved to take advantage of the brains we have.”

Zacks began using short films years ago as part of his own laboratory research on how the human brain segments its observance of daily activities into small, meaningful chunks that are easier for the mind to process and store as memories.

Flicker, one of the first books on filmmaking by a brain scientist, uses scenes from popular movies as case studies in what the latest neuroscience research can tell us about how we experience moving images. Based on extensive interviews with filmmakers and scientists, the book explores how filmmakers have learned to take advantage of the tricks our minds are already playing on us in real life.

The two rules

Much of film’s power to immerse us in the action on screen, he explains, is based on basic human traits that have evolved over eons of social interaction and shared experience, including what he describes as the “mirror rule” and the “success rule.”

The mirror rule describes the powerful—yet often subconscious—compulsion to do the same thing that those around us are doing. It explains why our body language tends to mirror those around us, why we’re prone to laugh or cry, to smile or grimace as we watch someone else do the same, regardless of whether these actions are occurring in real life or on a movie screen.

The success rule tells us to “do what has worked” in the past. In real life, we’ve learned to duck when flying objects approach us, to prepare to fight or flee when faced with danger, and we bring these same habits with us when we experience a film.

It’s the success rule, Zacks says, that explains why moviegoers might find themselves ducking a bit in their seats when the Jabberwock’s head falls in Tim Burton’s film version of Alice in Wonderland.

“You’ve got to do something a little extra to override those natural responses, and keep from responding in a way that would be appropriate if you’re outside a theater, but is inappropriate when you’re watching something that can’t reach out and touch you,” Zacks says.

In Flicker, Zacks explores how movie-making commandeers these and other human traits to make the film viewing experience so emotional, why it has such a surprising power to make us laugh or cry and how our brains struggle to draw the line between what is real and what we experience as real on the silver screen.

Where are movies headed?

The book ends with a chapter on where the movie-making industry is likely headed in the next 20 years. Will our entertainment be jacked directly into our brains? Will video games and movies fuse? How will the architecture of the brain shape the future of entertainment?


“We’re learning more and more about what makes a film gripping, what makes it engaging,” Zacks says. “There are a bunch of things that films can do that take the natural parameters that we experience in our everyday life and crank them up to 11, and that has the opportunity to make films that are more powerful, more engaging, more responsive than what we’ve seen before.

“I’m not sure that’s a good thing or not all the time, but it’s about understanding what making those technical choices does to the psychological and neurophysiological experience of the viewer,” he says.

Yet Zacks does not see science replacing aesthetics. “[Science] can’t tell us if it’s good or bad,” he says. “It might be able to tell us something about what’s going to be popular or not.

“The most important thing that we can do as psychologists and neurophysiologists for filmmakers is to tell them, ‘If you make this choice, here’s what’s going to happen.’ Then as a filmmaker, you still have to decide, ‘Is this what I want to happen, is that aesthetically pleasing, is that satisfying or not?’

“And, of course, it’s the people who buy the tickets who decide if it’s commercially successful.”

Source: Washington University in St. Louis