The Grand Lake movie theater in Oakland, California, shown at night

Watching Movies

Few topics in psychology have provoked as much discussion as our emotions. They are sometimes destructive but often helpful, especially when we are making a decision. How we deal with emotions is something we learn growing up, watching others, like we learn table manners. Emotions are useful as social cues, but it’s not really something we inherit, and a lot of it may be made up as it’s needed.

It’s hard to plan for emotions that will be useful in the future, though. Maybe that’s the reason that we find watching others’ emotions so fascinating, as if they were models for situations we might find ourselves in some day. We are good at imitating what others are feeling, and whether we laugh, weep, or growl in response, it draws us together with others.

It’s so entertaining, in fact, that we have made an art of it in drama, whether it’s acted out by marionettes, mimes, or in movies. Film has turned into practical lessons in psychology, demonstrating mastery of perception so that we readily suspend disbelief and accept cinematic substitutes for ordinary reality. We can watch emotions play out against almost any challenge, before our lives began or in the future, at no cost to us other than the price of a ticket or download.

How can someone else’s emotions evoke similar feelings in us? The likeliest explanations are, first, activity in mirror neurons when we can see the actor; or, second, mentalizing when we cannot see the actor, as in reading a story. Mentalizing, though more cognitive and less direct than mirror responses alone, may nevertheless depend on mirror neurons for the empathy or other emotion it establishes.

Good storytellers aim at evoking emotions with an epistemic or knowledge-centered value, such as curiosity.

A movie camera is shown filming an actor.

BIO: Watching a movie is a physical event and a biological process before it becomes a psychological wonder. As we shall see, the movie camera that passively records light patterns yields to active editing before a projector ever casts a film representation into our eyes. But the eyes are not passive recorders, so movie watching is not a replication of movie photography. The filmmaker would not want that, so cues in the movies we watch direct our gaze and our attention.

Movie viewing can be controlled, too. We find the best seating and then prepare to watch a long series of still pictures that we perceive as a flowing stream. How does that occur? The long answer delves into multiple mechanisms for detecting motion. The short answer tells us that still pictures will merge into a smooth flow of moving pictures at 15 frames per second, so that the industry standard of 24 frames per second for commercial films enables us to see motion without flicker.

While it is true that peripheral vision is very sensitive to motion, its seeming sharpness is a kind of illusion. There is actually a drop-off in peripheral acuity. Peripheral vision is not sharp (more here) despite its seeming so, and much of what we see in the peripheral visual field is filled in by the brain. Filmmakers work to make sure that we view movies with our much sharper foveal vision, achieving a kind of cinematic tunnel vision.

The reason why moviemakers have to resort to such manipulations is that we are not cameras. We perceive not to make an archive for the future, but to make sense of the present…in order to predict the future.

PSYCHO: Stage magic and filmmaking have shared an evolution from presenting a performance to mastery of an audience.

For example, What do filmmakers and magicians read in our eyes?

The screenwriter provides a story that the director has to present briefly enough for the theater to turn over audiences profitably. How do they compress a drama effectively? The answer lay in adding to the camera and the projector a third tool, scissors, for making cuts in the film. Where, though, should a film editor cut?

One clue is the audience’s blink rate. We blink more than we need to for the health of our eyes (research here). In each eyeblink we release our attention briefly and may redirect it.  Film editors time their cuts to the audience’s blinking, when it’s time for them to switch attention

Wikipedia says we blink at the rate of about 10 blinks per minute, on average. The average duration of a screen shot has fallen from 12 seconds in 1930 to 2.5 seconds today. (The research is yonder.)

The old idea was that a movie scene (or a lecture) dare not exceed the audience’s attention span. That idea has been pretty well discredited, but you are welcome to test yourself if you get nostalgic about the notion. But key grips, gaffers, and best boys lie outside my bailiwick.

Our eyes not only blink, they jerk. We are accustomed to assembling a scene in perception by integrating the images from a quick series of eye fixations interrupted by saccades. The resulting image is not blurry, amazingly. Patients who can’t move their eyes will move their heads in saccade-like movements to sample different points in the environment. This occurs in cases of ophthalmoplegia, or gaze paralysis, which may arise in alcoholics who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy. For the most part, members of the audience act as one to look at the screen just where the filmmaker intends, then to respond with the same emotions (or at least the same autonomic responses).

Films take advantage of this method of perception by jerking from point to point as our eyes do. Filmmaker no longer jerk the camera from scene to scene so much as depend on the film editor to make cuts.

By controlling the audience’s gazes by cuts, movies control the audience’s attention as well. Just as we are unaware of our eye movements as we see what is in front of us, we are unaware of a film’s cuts as we follow the thread of a story. Great skill is demanded of a film editor to lead the audience in this way. Some films control more of our attention, some less, while a few fail spectacularly.

This is not madness but method, and an adaptive one at that. The flow of events around us do not occur in segments but must be broken up in “slices” called syntagma for storage in memory. Indeed, some memories have a move-like quality about them. It’s easy to confuse movies aren’t reality;, though of course movies only simulate reality. (But is that a problem?) They aren’t even virtual reality!

We are familiar with the stories that movies tell us. In addition, the movies tell us how the mind works, while the brain tells the filmmaker whether the movie is working.

SOCIAL: For most of us, watching movies is still a social experience. While most of this discussion has approached our experiences of watching movies from a bottom-up perspective, we bring a load of top-down cultural perspectives to movie-watching as well. When filmmakers do not stereotype non-Western cultures, viewers still view the movies through cultural spectacles.

The old wariness against subliminal advertising has justifiably withered. The persisting transmission of biases and prejudices has remained a threat since The Birth of a Nation.

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