Neurocinema: How Movies Control Your Mind

By  · Published on February 26th, 2015

AVCO Embassy Pictures

Every time Will Bloom rounds the corner into the forest, his dying father Ed in his arms, to find all of Ed’s friends waiting for him at the river bank, I cry. Every single time. It’s as if Big Fish has the key to a complex emotional lock which takes two hours to trip the rights tumblers before clicking right at that moment and opening up the flood gates. It’s as if the movie understands the rhythms of my mind.

It’s not the only one. We’ve all had experiences with movies like that – they hit the correct pattern to make us scared or make us laugh or make us weep. That’s a filmmakers job, after all. At least typically. We can think of filmmaking as an act of artistic creation and as a kind of construction. Stories are made of building blocks meant to form a greater whole which elicits a response.

So it’s easy to identify with the concept of neurocinema – a nascent field studying how our brains respond to scenes in real-time – and accept on some level that it’s groping toward cementing patterns that some master storytellers already instinctively know.

In posting this video from Brain Craft, V Renee from No Film School mentions Alfred Hitchcock’s craftsmanship mentality that (playfully) boiled down directing to an act of manipulation – a job concerned with putting together the right ingredients to make the audience terrified. He was, of course, damned good at that.

And, yes, there are a lot of tropes and formulas that he used consistently. He did not seem guilty of overthinking the human psyche. There are also many tropes and formulas for different genres – particularly horror and romance – that are considered principally with making us feel something.

The neurocinema that the video explores is a few years old. There are companies like MindSign and NeuroFocus who don’t believe in the space bar, but do believe in utilizing brain mapping studies to leverage decision-making power in cinema. However, to re-read articles about their early emergence – like this one from Fast Company in 2011 – it’s clear that neurocinema isn’t exactly the game-changer that the CEOs of these companies hoped it would be. That’s not to say that their services aren’t being used, or being used regularly, but that they haven’t really changed anything. They may have simply augmented the same old game.

That’s probably because neurocinema looks and feels a lot like pop psychology hokum. Bold claims and the kind of reductionism that even Hitchcock might laugh at. I have no doubt that there are patterns and methods to crafting an emotional response in a large group of people, but Hollywood has already built a multi-billion-dollar business from cracking those codes, and anyone who promises fool-proof audience manipulation is selling snake oil regardless of how many MRIs they ground up to make the sauce.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.