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Photoillustration by Andy Potts for The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail

In the future, instead of going to movie theatres and staring at giant screens, perhaps we will attach a cable to our computers, plug it into the sides of our skulls - and get lost.

That could be the eventual outcome of "neurocinema," an emerging technology that promises to shape films to maximize brain excitement, allowing Hollywood studios to know exactly what you want better than you do. As columnist Scott Brown sardonically noted in Wired magazine last month: "Movie houses will become crack dens with cup holders, and I'll lie there mainlining pure viewing pleasure for hours."

The concern that movies may take over our brains goes back at least to 1931 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which featured an entertainment system called "the feelies" inspired by Huxley's horror at watching his first sound movie. Novels made into such movies as The Parallax View and A Clockwork Orange show heroes brainwashed by film. But could brain research also make films better?

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Neurocinema is an offshoot of neuromarketing, a term coined by Dutch marketing expert Ale Smidts in 2002. It, in turn, is a branch of advertising research that uses brain-imaging techniques, including the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (or fMRI, which measures blood flow to parts of the brain) and electroencephalography (EEG, which measures electrical activity) to peer into our brains - and, more specifically, into "the subconscious thoughts, feelings and desires that drive purchasing decisions" as branding guru Martin Lindstrom writes in Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.

It's no longer the stuff of science fiction: Coca-Cola, Unilever, Campbell's Soup and Levi Strauss have used brain scanning to develop advertising strategies, and marketing jargon is full of excited talk about finding the "buy button" in consumers' heads.

Neuromarketing buzz has influenced the move industry, too. More than a year before Avatar hit screens, James Cameron boasted that fMRI machines would show the brain was much more active while watching his 3-D film than while taking in a conventional movie. This month's South by Southwest festival in Austin played to the film-geek crowd with a panel called Big Brother in Your Brain: Neuroscience and Marketing.

And last fall, such media outlets as Wired, CNN and National Public Radio carried the story of a San Diego company called Mindsign Neuromarketing, which announced it was revolutionizing films by using an fMRI machine to test scenes from a horror movie called Pop Skull.

But on closer inspection, it didn't take a brain scientist to diagnose a bad case of neuro hype. The test involved only one subject, a 24-year-old woman who watched two scenes from the movie, three times. According to film producer Peter Katz, this was the first step in a brave new filmmaking world where filmmakers "will be able to track precisely which sequences/scenes excite, emotionally engage or lose the viewer's interest based on what regions of the brain are activated. From that info, a director can edit, reshoot an actor's bad performance, adjust a score, pump up visual effects and apply any other changes to improve or replace the least compelling scenes."

Most brain-movie research to date makes more modest claims. For example, in 2004, Professor Uri Hasson and his New York University colleagues showed five subjects different scenes, lasting about 30 minutes, of the Sergio Leone 1966 western, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and discovered "the brains of different individuals show a highly significant tendency to act in unison."

No big surprise there. But later, in a 2008 test, the same researchers looked into how moviegoers experience different films. This time, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly aroused about 45-per-cent similar brain reaction among the subjects. By contrast, the loosely structured TV comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm hit only 18-per-cent common brain activity, while an episode of the vintage television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents scored a whopping 65-per-cent uniformity, confirming the Master of Suspense's claim that he played his audience like an instrument.

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After Hasson's initial experiment, Hollywood executives commissioned Steven Quartz, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, to try to improve the effectiveness of movie trailers. Quartz claimed to have discovered an area of the brain, at the base of the orbitofrontal cortex, that indicates "how much people are anticipating a movie when they are watching a trailer or how much liking they have."

Other researchers are dubious. Neurologist Richard Restak, author of The Naked Brain: How the Emerging Neurosociety is Changing How We Live, Work, and Love, points out that a large area of the brain not reacting in Quartz's experiments included the prefrontal cortex, the area important for critical thought.

"There are other reasons to doubt that brain science is somehow going to eliminate the highly personal and inherently subjective nature of movie preferences," argues Restak, who warns that "complex multidetermined behaviours can't be rigidly localized to specific locations in the brain."

Leading film theorist David Bordwell wrote a column on his blog called This is Your Brain on Movies - Maybe, trying to sum up the current state of informed guesswork. Specifically, he addresses how we can watch a suspense movie - a Hitchcock film, for example - and re-experience anxiety even when we know the outcome. Watching movies, he argues, is as much about automatic brain triggers as the more conscious business of understanding the story.

Even the idea of understanding a story, on a neural level, is puzzling. What do we mean by what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief"? Norman Holland, author of Literature and the Brain, and of a regular Psychology Today blog, This is Your Brain on Culture, believes getting lost in a fictional experience (whether a movie, book or game) involves putting a hold on our reality-check mechanism. We train ourselves to inhibit "those frontal-lobe systems that prompt us to action, and they stop assessing the reality of what we are perceiving."

As evidence, he points out how damage to the frontal lobes can really screw up our movie viewing: Damage to dorsolateral circuitry, which regulates executive function and working memory, makes us just not care enough to enjoy films. On the other hand, damage to the orbitofrontal region can make the movies too real and intense.

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Holland believes that fiction, and art in general, is an exalted form of play, a view supported by "evocritic" Brian Boyd in his recent book, On the Origin of Stories. Boyd argues that art is our brain's best evolutionary adaptation. Art is derived from play, the way that higher animals enjoyably rehearse activities that they might later use in serious situations. Art helps our species to develop co-operation, group identity and creativity, and to hypothesize about the minds of others.

True, making art that moves us is more complex and elegant than strapping someone down into a doughnut-shaped magnet and trying to read their brains, but the intention is similar.

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