This Is Your Brain...At The Movies | St. Louis Public Radio

This Is Your Brain...At The Movies

Oct 28, 2014

Movies can sometimes feel very real, bringing up emotions and even physical reactions as we watch them.

Washington University cognitive neuroscientist Jeffrey Zacks studies how the brain processes visual imagery, including what we see on film.

Jeffrey Zacks' forthcoming book, "Flicker: Your Brain on Movies," explores how our experience watching film co-opts the mechanisms our brains evolved for understanding the real world.
Credit Oxford University Press

According to Zacks, movies hijack the parts of our brains that trigger our emotional responses and overstimulate them.

"For lots of us, we can see a visual stimulus on a screen, and cry at a movie, maybe more easily than we would cry at the same scene in real life," Zacks said. "And that is totally perplexing.”

We’re used to watching movies that quickly change camera angles or jump from scene to scene ― even though nothing like that happens in real life.

Zacks said our brains never evolved to deal with sudden edits and scene changes.

“But that happens like every two seconds, in a modern action thriller," Zacks said. "So, why don’t our heads just explode?"

Zacks said our brains can bridge those discontinuities because it is similar to what happens when we blink or our eyes move ― which he said happens involuntarily about every three seconds.

“And each time that happens, you essentially go blind for about a hundred milliseconds, while your eyes are ballistically moving." he said,.

Zacks said the same brain mechanisms that evolved to block out that visual garbage allow us to make sense of edited film.

Zacks will be speaking about the science of how we experience film on Wednesday night from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. at the Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood, as part of Washington University’s free lecture series, Science on Tap.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience