Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains

By a very fortuitous coincidence on August 28, 2014, two articles appeared online in very different publications but with very similar facts and implications about using MRI technology to research the neurological effects of movies and music upon their audiences. Let’s, well, scan these features together and see what we find.

First, everyone loves watching movies and nowadays they can be viewed on screens everywhere in theaters, televisions, computers, mobile devices and gaming systems whenever it is convenient for the viewer. The work of a psychologist named Uri Hasson was reported on WIRED.com in a fascinating article by Greg Miller entitled How Movies Sychronize the Brains of an Audience. As reported here, has Hasson employed MRIs to scan viewers of the same scenes in a series of films from different genres. He recently presented his finding to a group of film industry professionals.

He was surprised to find that highly similar regions of the brain were showing specifically increased activity among the viewers of the clips of the same films, That is, discernible patterns emerged in the scans while viewing westerns, action movies, mysteries and so on. However, a comedy on cable produced a much lower level of Synchronicity among the test subjects. (There are two very informative graphics of the MRI’s outputs accompanying this story.) In effect, different films and different genres produced more highly correlated levels of such synchronicity than others. One Hollywood director is quoted here about his concerns that movie studies might soon be using MRIs to test movies at pre-release test screenings.

Furthermore, I think it would be interesting to know if Netflix might also be able to apply this research. This because starting in 2006 and concluding with the “Netflix Prize” being awarded in 2009, the company ran a contest challenging contestants to devise an algorithm that would improve their movie rating and recommendation system. That is, when subscribers order film A for viewing, Netflix will additionally recommend films B, C and D based on the reviews of the user base. So, would the added application of MRI data and analyses possibly improve the current recommendation algorithm being used at Netflix?

Second, is there actually anyone out there who still doesn’t get chills up and down their spine whenever they hear the opening bars of Born to Run? This likely happens even thought you have heard it 10,000 times before. Do you recall the first time you ever heard it come blasting out of the radio?

Using MRI technology in the context of researching why tunes have such a strongly evocative effect upon our brains, was another engaging report entitled Why Your Favorite Song Takes You Down Memory Lane posted on Medicalxpress.com. According to this story, the test subjects in a study were all played six songs (four were “iconic”, one was a favorites and one was unfamiliar), of five minutes each, from very different types of music. The scientists conducting this study found distinct patterns depending on whether that subject either liked or disliked a song and another pattern for the fave among the group.

Moreover, the fave increased activity in the hippocampus*, the brain region that controls memory and emotion, thus causing the resulting connection between music and memory.

I highly recommend clicking through and reading both of these articles together for all of the scientific details of how these studies were done and their conclusions were reached.

Also, for a terrific and thoroughly engaging detailed analysis of the neuroscience of music I also recommend This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin (Plume/Penguin, 2007)

December 19, 2014 Update:

The next set of analyses and enhancements to our cinematic experience can be found in a newly published book that explains the science of how movies affect our brains entitled Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press, 2014), by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks. The author was interviewed during a fascinating segment of the December 18, 2014 broadcast of The Brian Lehrer Show on WYNC radio. Among other things, he spoke about why audiences cry during movies (even when the films are not very good), sometimes root for the villain, and move to duck out of the way when an object on the screen seems to be coming right at them such as the giant bolder rolling after Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of this is intentionally done by the filmmakers to manipulate audiences into heightened emotional responses to key events as they unfold on the big screen.

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* Isn’t that also what they call the place where hippos go to school?

4 thoughts on “Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains

  1. There was a basic methodology problems left unexplained by the WIRED article. I was an MRI tech. MRI exams involve a lot of noisy RF banging rhythms, which is why they give you headphones and earplugs. You couldn’t possibly concentrate on anything that was dialogue-based comedy, like Curb Your Enthusiasm. On the other hand, you could watch an action scene from The Good, Bad and Ugly and the banging might act as a new soundtrack for the suspense.

    It would make more sense to examine these things using Pet CT scanners (nuclear medicine), which are quiet, rapid and show brain activity in a similar fashion.

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