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Your Brain on Movies: Implications for National Security

by Lindsey Grubbs

An intellectually diverse and opinionated crowd gathered recently for the most recent Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News journal club at Emory University—“Your brain on movies: Implications for national security.” The discussion was one of the liveliest I’ve seen in the years I’ve been attending these events, which is perhaps not surprising: the talk touched on high-profile issues like neuromarketing (which is controversial enough that it has been banned in France since 2011) and military funding for neuroscience.

The seminar was led by Dr. Eric Schumacher, Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgia Tech, director of the Georgia State University/Georgia Tech Center for Advanced Brain Imaging, and principle investigator of CoNTRoL—Cognitive Neuroscience at Tech Research Laboratory. Currently, the lab investigates task-oriented cognition, as well as the relationship between film narratives and “transportation” (colloquially, the sense of “getting lost” in a story), which is a complex cognitive puzzle involving attention, memory, and emotion.

Cary Grant chased by an airplane in North by Northwest,

courtesy of Flickr user Insomnia Cured Here.
Schumacher presented his recent article, “Neural evidence that suspense narrows attentional focus,” published in Neuroscience. Subjects in the study were placed in an MRI scanner and shown film clips of suspenseful films including Alien, Blood Simple, License to Kill, and three Hitchcock films: North by Northwest, Marnie, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (I think I enrolled in the wrong studies to pay for college). The scanner revealed when suspense in the film increased, people’s gaze was focused on the film.

Researchers correlated this fMRI data with moments of increased suspense—as when Cary Grant was chased by a plane in North by Northwest. This revealed two key findings: first, during moments of heightened suspense, subjects had increased activity in visual regions processing the film and corresponding decreases in activity to visual regions processing the visual periphery. Second, follow-up questions testing memory initially showed a slight but not significant increase of memory during suspenseful moments for questions like “What color was the truck at the end of the film?” However, when the questions were re-tooled to include plot elements, the memory increase became statistically significant. Thus, memory for plot-relevant information was shown to improve with increasing suspense.

EEG, courtesy of Flickr user Markus Spring
Researchers from this study also collaborated with a group investigating how brain coherence (i.e., the similarity of activity across participants) as monitored on EEG relates to subjective preference. In this experiment, EEG coherence predicted population preference of Super Bowl ads. That is, the more similar the brain signal across participants, the higher rated the Super Bowl ad was. Schumacher identified that some of the same attention and visual processing regions related to suspense are also more active with increasing preference of commercials. According to Schumacher, combining the research into suspense in films and attention in Super Bowl advertisements suggests that when attention is allocated to films and commercials, we can see changes in the brain, especially in visual processing, attention, and memory—and these factors are related more broadly to preference.

These facts alone were enough to spur intense conversation. Participants worried that this kind of neural research into visual engagement might result in more manipulative ads, or in a profusion of dull blockbuster-style action movies designed to trigger neural engagement. Some suggested that there would be nothing wrong with creating films engineered to maximize enjoyment. Others asserted that “enjoyment” is not what art is actually about, and claimed that they want films that make them uncomfortable and push them out of their comfort zone. Still others–including Schumacher–thought that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that art engineered to maximize the enjoyment of the kind of viewer who likes edgy indie films would be even edgier and indie-er, and that everyone could win in the end.

Would Hitchcock use neuro-insights to make more suspenseful films?

 Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons
“Art” seems to be a touchy subject when it comes to neuroscience. The animated discussion highlighted anxiety about science taking on topics we conceive of as belonging to subjective human experience. To many, “art” is intrinsically linked with “humanity,” and hence mechanizing how we think about art seems to make people fear for the mechanization of the individual or society. The fear, apparently, is that films produced using insights from neuroscience would result in a loss of agency or taste that is somehow intrinsic to our being—that films will manipulate or control us. It’s worth noting, though, that science is no more alien to our self-expression than art. Both come from a creative impulse, and science is always shaping our relationship to our humanity, just as our humanity is always shaping the way we engage in science.

The anxiety surrounding neuromarketing or neuro-aesthetic research is compounded in this case by military involvement. A Washington Post article about Schumacher’s research is provocatively titled, “Why DARPA is paying people to watch Alfred Hitchcock Cliffhangers.” The study was funded by “Narrative Networks,” a program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—the Department of Defense agency heading all kinds of totally wild sci-fi style research.

Narrative Networks specifically is interested in funding research into quantitative methods for studying narratives and their effects, into the neurobiology and endocrinology of responses to narratives, and into simulating and monitoring the impact of narratives and “doctrinal modifications” in the real world. DARPA claims, “Narratives exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behavior. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out-group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity. It comes as no surprise that because of these influences stories are important in security contexts: for example, they change the course of insurgencies, frame negotiations, play a role in political radicalization, influence the methods and goals of violent social movements, and likely play a role in clinical conditions important to the military such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

An article in Wired proclaims, “Darpa wants to Master the Science of Propaganda” and the BBC reported on “Building the Pentagon’s ‘like me’ weapon.” Given their titles, both are actually quite (disappointingly?) measured, and present the project as a defensive, not aggressive, one. The latter quotes neuroscientist Read Montague, who says, “I see a device coming that’s going to make suggestions to you, like, a, this situation is getting tense, and, b, here are things you need to do now, I’ll help you as you start talking.”

The dystopic Ludovico treatment in A Clockwork Orange, 

gif courtesy of Flickr user Gwendal Uguen
Despite this emphasis on defense, the mention of DARPA led our group, again, to spirited debate (also known as rampant conspiracy theorizing by those of us raised on the X-Files). When the research at hand is relatively straightforward and non-threatening, we might ask why military research is such a hot button issue. The most obvious answer is that many object to military activity and are uninterested in advancing science that could be used for violent or nefarious purposes. I will admit that my first glance at DARPA’s innocuous “Narrative Networks” immediately yields the more threatening “propaganda” or “mind control,” but there are at least two ways that this knee-jerk reaction can be elaborated on.

First, understanding narratives can of course yield pacifist as well as violent results. DARPA claims that they hope that understanding the ability of narratives to radicalize, for instance, could lead to more successful methods for de-escalating radicalization. They also point to the possibility of better treatments for PTSD, and to more effective measures for disseminating public health information.

Cold War propaganda, courtesy of Flickr user Dan H.
Second, although the word “propaganda” has an undoubtedly sinister ring to it, it is important to keep in mind that rhetorical appeals meant to influence belief and behavior are omnipresent and not inherently linked to an ethical judgment. We are all trying to convince people of things at all times. Public health campaigns, education, and this blog post itself are all propagandistic in their own ways—but that does not mean that they are necessarily reprehensible or ethically unacceptable. Schumacher hinted at this when he noted that after being quoted saying, “governments use stories,” he wishes he had stated more broadly that “people” use stories. You apparently can’t talk about defense research into narrative without the inevitable Goebbels reference, but rather than reactionary blanket judgments, it will more productive to think about ethical and unethical ways that research can be employed.

So, what are the ethics of military research funding? Although the topic originally calls to mind weapons development, chemical warfare, and the creation of Terminator-esque super soldiers, funders like DARPA provide enormous resources for researchers doing non-nefarious work, for instance, Schumacher’s suspense and transportation study, or Greg Berns’ work on neural connectivity when reading fiction (which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog).  For researchers like these, should DARPA be seen as just another (and often extremely generous) source of grant money? Schumacher noted that the money came with no restrictions or conditions on the publication of the data received, and the work doesn’t go directly to some mysterious military database—it is published in major journals in order to advance the field.

Should pacifists have reservations about using DARPA money?

Image courtesy of Flickr user wwwuppertal
But are there other reservations? Can pacifists or conscientious objectors ethically pursue research with military funding? Are there ways that a Quaker graduate student, for example, could refuse to work on a DARPA project for which their PI obtained funding without stigma? Is the source of the funding important when the objective of the study is simply to increase our knowledge of the neural correlates of processes like reading or watching films? Scientific interest in narrative pre-exists this initiative, so in one way DARPA simply funds things we were already curious in. It is worth noting that DARPA is a significant funder for the BRAIN Initiative in the US, and hence is a major partner in advancing study into the brain. But does the military framing change the kinds of questions we ask or research agendas we pursue?

After hearing the skepticism that greeted the idea of military research into narratives, one can almost understand DARPA’s enormous investment in controlling narrative and belief. Judging from our conversation, DARPA and the military could really use some work on their PR. But at this point, perhaps many, many years before the successful integration of this research into field tools (if that day ever comes), DARPA’s scientific approach to narrative reminds me less of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” and more of Star Trek’s android Data when he uses his processors to try to act naturally–like when he picks a fight with a girlfriend in order to foster intimacy, explaining to her, “In my study of interpersonal dynamics, I have found that conflict, followed by emotional release, often strengthens the connection between two people.” (The relationship is not a success.)

We should definitely question and discuss the aims guiding research and the ways that the gains of research will be put into action—perhaps especially when the military is involved, but also when it comes to targeted advertising or the creation of appealing art. Perhaps science fiction, dystopia, and conspiracy theorizing provide some protective benefit, as they allow us to imagine possible negative futures that we can then avoid. But (despite the fun of conspiracy theorizing) can we see these conversations as an opportunity to discuss ethical paths forward, not simply unethical nightmares to avoid?

Want to cite this post?

Grubbs, L. (2015). Your brain on movies: Implications for national security. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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