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Psychocinematics: discovering the magic of movies

By Arthur Shimamura


Like the great and powerful Oz, filmmakers conceal themselves behind a screen and offer a mesmerizing experience that engages our sights, thoughts, and emotions. They have developed an assortment of magical “tricks” of acting, staging, sound, camera movement, and editing that create a sort of sleight of mind. These techniques have been discovered largely through trial and error, and thus we have very little understanding of how they actually work on our psyche. Scholars of “film studies” have thought deeply about the nature of movies, yet few scientists have considered empirical analyses of our movie experience—or what I have coined psychocinematics. Yet more than any other artistic expression or form of entertainment, we are captured by movies and involve ourselves with the characters portrayed, almost as if are in the scenes themselves.

How do filmmakers draw us into the drama and keep us riveted to the screen? How does film editing link events in an often seamless manner? How do movies drive our emotions, instilling suspense, laughter, horror, sadness, and surprise along the way? Why are movies so compelling? One’s first response might be: “It’s the story, stupid!” If the plot isn’t interesting or if we cannot identify with the characters portrayed, interest soon diminishes. Of course, how a filmmaker engages us into the plot is determined by a variety of factors: the acting may be superb, the visuals stunning, the editing seamless or interestingly quirky, the drama gripping, or the suspense overwhelming. For a scientific understanding, one needs evaluate these rather subjective features by developing a theoretical framework for empirical research.

Toward a scientific analysis of movies, I’ve come up with a simple scheme that captures the psychological features of our movie experience, which I call the I-SKE model. The name is an acronym for what I believe are four essential components of our aesthetic response to movies: the intention (I) of the filmmaker and three psychological components of the viewer: sensation, knowledge, and emotion. The I-SKE model was initially developed to describe our aesthetic response to visual art (see Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder). When we experience art, indeed when we experience anything, we don’t start from a “blank slate” as we are always applying our knowledge to new experiences, drawing on world knowledge, cultural experiences, and personal memories. Ernst Gombrich, the noted art historian called this influence “the beholder’s share.” With respect to movies, filmmakers play on our prior knowledge (of life and of movies) by offering an audiovisual experience that is part storytelling and part a simulation of how we naturally experience the world. The I-SKE model can be used to breakdown the beholder’s share into the sensory, conceptual (knowledge), and emotional features of film. Indeed, when these three components are running at maximum intensities we experience that satisfied feeling as the movie credits roll and exclaim, “that was fantastic!” Psychocinematics considers the impact of these I-SKE components and how they interact.

With the advent of brain imaging techniques, particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), psychological science can now link mental events with brain processes. Indeed, it is now possible to have individuals watch a movie in a fMRI scanner and record the brain regions that are active during the experience (something that was considered science fiction fantasy only 20 years ago). In this way, one can map psychological experience with brain activity. We must not, however, fall into a modern-day version of phrenology where bumps on the head are replaced by bright spots on a brain scan. We need to go further and develop theories that describe the functional dynamics of neural activity and how brain regions interact to enable us to see, think, and feel. Thus, psychocinematics offers an opportunity to consider our movie experience from a scientific perspective that connects minds, brains, and experience at the movies. In the end, we’ll need more than psychology and biology, as sociology, history, anthropology, and other relevant disciplines are needed to gain a broad understanding of the magic of movies.

Arthur P. Shimamura is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He studies the psychological and biological underpinnings of memory and movies. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to study links between art, mind, and brain. He is co-editor of Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience (Shimamura & Palmer, ed., OUP, 2012), editor of the forthcoming Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies(ed., OUP, March 2013), and author of the forthcoming book, Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder (May 2013). Further musings can be found on his blog, Psychocinematics: Cognition at the Movies.

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Recent Comments

  1. Doc P

    Please do consult a film scholar before writing anything about film and cinema again, was shuddering the whole way through that.

  2. Kenneth

    Cinema and Film are really incidental in this. However, he is right to include audiences as a vital part of film/cinema experience/history

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