Tense film scenes trigger brain activity: New ways to predict how audiences will respond

June 14, 2012

Visual and auditory stimuli that elicit high levels of engagement and emotional response can be linked to reliable patterns of brain activity, a team of researchers from The City College of New York and Columbia University reports. Their findings could lead to new ways for producers of films, television programs and commercials to predict what kinds of scenes their audiences will respond to.

"Peak correlations of across viewings can occur in remarkable correspondence with arousing moments of the film," the researchers said in an article published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. "Moreover, a significant reduction in neural correlation occurs upon a second viewing of the film or when the narrative is disrupted by presenting its scenes scrambled in time."

The researchers used EEG (), which measures across the scalp, to collect data on of 20 human subjects, who were shown scenes from three films with repeat viewings. Two films, Alfred Hitchcock's "Bang! You're Dead" and Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," contained moments of high drama expected to trigger responses. The third, an amateur film of people walking on a college campus, was used as a control.

"We found moments of high correlation (between brainwave activity during separate viewings) and moments when this did not occur," said Dr. Lucas C. Parra, Herbert G. Kayser Professor of Biomedical Engineering in CCNY's Grove School of Engineering, and a corresponding author. "By looking at patterns of oscillation we could tell at which moments a person was particularly engaged. Additionally, we could see whether the correlation occurred across subjects and repeated viewings."

The video will load shortly

Video of EEG readings during scenes from "Bang, You're Dead"

Measurements along the EEG alpha activity scale show the degree of in a person, he explained. When the oscillations are strong, a person is relaxed, i.e. not engaged. When a person is very attentive, alpha activity is low.

Peaks in engagement were correlated to three kinds of scenes, said Dr. Jasek Dmochowski, a post-doctoral fellow in the Grove School and a corresponding author. They included moments with powerful visual cues, such as a close-up on the gun in "Bang! You're Dead," scenes with ominous music in which the visual component was not significant, and meaningful scene changes.

The researchers found significantly less neural correlation on participants' second viewings and when scenes were scrambled and shown out of sequence. "Following a narrative is complex and involves a lot of distributed processing. When a person doesn't have a sense of the narrative there is much less correlation (across views of the same or another subject)," Dr. Dmochowski said.

Having demonstrated the correlations between intense stimuli and brainwave reliability, the research team now wants to locate where in the brain the response occurs, Professor Parra said. He wants to deploy a combination of EEG and magnetic resonance imaging to "get the best of both worlds:" the fine temporal resolution of EEG and the detailed imagery of MRI.

The team sees several potential applications for the ability to quantify levels of engagement, including neuro-marketing, quantitative assessment of entertainment, measuring the impact of narrative discourse and the study of attention deficit disorders. "Advertisers would love to know where and when an ad is engaging," he noted.

"The potential to measure engagement is huge since this provides an objective way to collect data," added Dr. Dmochowski, who currently is investigating whether there is a correlation between social media usage and in young people while watching "The Walking Dead," a drama series on the American Movie Classics cable network.

"We are mining Twitter to measure the depth of watching," he continued. "We think there will be many correlations between scenes that elicit social media responses and neural signatures, and we can look at both positive and negative responses."

Explore further: Ready to learn? Brain scans can tell you

Related Stories

Ready to learn? Brain scans can tell you

August 19, 2011
Our memories work better when our brains are prepared to absorb new information, according to a new study by MIT researchers. A team led by Professor John Gabrieli has shown that activity in a specific part of the brain, ...

Women anticipate negative experiences differently to men

August 23, 2011
Men and women differ in the way they anticipate an unpleasant emotional experience, which influences the effectiveness with which that experience is committed to memory, according to new research.

Researchers utilize neuroimaging to show how brain uses objects to recognize scenes

September 13, 2011
Research conducted by Boston College neuroscientist Sean MacEvoy and colleague Russell Epstein of the University of Pennsylvania finds evidence of a new way of considering how the brain processes and recognizes a person's ...

Recommended for you

Faulty support cells disrupt communication in brains of people with schizophrenia

July 20, 2017
New research has identified the culprit behind the wiring problems in the brains of people with schizophrenia. When researchers transplanted human brain cells generated from individuals diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia ...

Scientists discover combined sensory map for heat, humidity in fly brain

July 20, 2017
Northwestern University neuroscientists now can visualize how fruit flies sense and process humidity and temperature together through a "sensory map" within their brains, according to new research.

Scientists reveal how patterns of brain activity direct specific body movements

July 20, 2017
New research by Columbia scientists offers fresh insight into how the brain tells the body to move, from simple behaviors like walking, to trained movements that may take years to master. The discovery in mice advances knowledge ...

Team traces masculinization in mice to estrogen receptor in inhibitory neurons

July 20, 2017
Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have opened a black box in the brain whose contents explain one of the remarkable yet mysterious facts of life.

Speech language therapy delivered through the Internet leads to similar improvements as in-person treatment

July 20, 2017
Telerehabilitation helps healthcare professionals reach more patients in need, but some worry it doesn't offer the same quality of care as in-person treatment. This isn't the case, according to recent research by Baycrest.

New study reveals contrasts in how groups of neurons function during decision making

July 19, 2017
By training mice to perform a sound identification task in a virtual reality maze, researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) have identified striking contrasts in how groups of neurons ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.