What do you get when you cross an fMRI machine with the movie industry? Neurocinema. MindSign co-founder Philip Carlsen and neurologist Dr. David Hubbard explain how their brain scan research may help directors give the audience what it wants.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Hollywood is breaking new ground in commercial penetration, by experimenting with technology that can determine with scientific certainty what will make us scream. A company called MindSign is pioneering a technique dubbed neurocinema, which uses a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI, to penetrate our skulls for a precise picture of what we're feeling when we're watching a film. Philip Carlsen is cofounder of the company, based in San Diego. He is not a scientist. He’s a film school graduate. He used to work at DreamWorks, where people in the marketing department would often complain about the emotion-tracking tools currently at their disposal.
PHILIP CARLSEN: They used the focus group system, which we all know is flawed. And when you have a focus group you've got about a hundred people who come in and watch a movie, and then a couple of hours later they're asked to go over what parts were their favorite and what parts were they emotionally engaged in, how did they feel about a certain character. And not only can they not remember, but the majority of people cannot describe how they felt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Describe the test you did using Pop Skull, which is a horror movie that came out a couple of years ago.
PHILIP CARLSEN: The producer of Pop Skull, Peter Katz, wanted to find the scariest parts of his movie. We had a female, 23, lying down on her back and there’s what we call a head coil that is clamped over her face, and this head coil has a mirror on it, kind of like a periscope, so that they can actually see the screen that is projected behind them. And I show her two scenes. One is a guy hears a noise in his house, and as he starts to go up the stairs he sees a hand creeping around the corner, and intimidating, scary figures start to appear.
[MOVIE SOUNDTRACK, UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you think of this scene? Did you think it was scary?
PHILIP CARLSEN: Umm -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Be honest.
PHILIP CARLSEN: No. [LAUGHS] The second scene I found more disturbing, and my amygdala will back me up on that.
[KNOCKING/SOUND UP AND UNDER] A crazy maniac knocks on somebody’s door, and the owner of the home opens up.
MALE ACTOR: Hello.
PHILIP CARLSEN: And the next thing you know, he’s getting a knife stabbed right into his chest. And as he pulls out the knife, you've got –
[CRASHING SOUND] - all the blood comin’ out and strobe light effects going on.
[EERIE PULSING SOUND/MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was going on with the blood in her brain, at that moment?
PHILIP CARLSEN: Well, the amygdala, which is the center of the brain for all your primal emotions, fear being one of those, it’s calling in more blood to that area of the brain. There are also other areas of the brain that deal with personal meaning, emotional engagement, if they're even paying attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you see this technology being used on, say, a movie set?
PHILIP CARLSEN: Ideally, a director could send dailies out to us and we can scan the dailies. For those of you who don't know, dailies are all the shots at the end of the day. They've got seven shots that look exactly the same, but we can give you the most activating shot of these seven, and you can use those. You can actually make your movie more activating based on subjects’ brains.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, some people say that we're already subject to too much crass manipulation in the movies and that it’s actually undermining the art. Do you feel any guilt about getting the art of grossing us out down to a science?
PHILIP CARLSEN: No, I don't feel guilty at all. Some people look at us as trying to steal art or basically revamp how they define art, and we're not trying to do that at all. We want to help make better movies all around. You know, when a studio is going to drop 350 million dollars on the next Pirates movie, they better make sure that they're hitting on all cylinders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the most negative reaction you've gotten to this whole thing?
PHILIP CARLSEN: There are people who say, you know, you can't make me like something or not like something, and, you know, we come back saying, we're not trying to make you like anything. We're just finding out what you do like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then we'll make it.
PHILIP CARLSEN: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Phil, thank you very much.
PHILIP CARLSEN: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Philip Carlsen is a cofounder of MindSign Neuromarketing. Dr. David Hubbard is managing director at the Applied fMRI Institute in San Diego and the lead neurologist working on the neurocinema project. I asked him how closely these brain scans can really track our emotions.
DR. DAVID HUBBARD: The scan looks at the entire brain. Some of the brain is visual. Some of the brain is auditory. One specific area is emotional processing. A different specific area is this sense of personal meaning. And then there’s all sorts of other areas. There’s motor areas. You can see whether someone is pretending to play tennis because the arm area is activated. But I still think that you can't necessarily know whether the person is feeling fear or disgust, just because you've seen the amygdala activate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you might be able to tell if someone feels a personal identification?
DR. DAVID HUBBARD: Yes, there’s a different area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex right in the middle of the frontal lobe that seems to activate when we are experiencing something that is personally meaningful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about sorrow?
DR. DAVID HUBBARD: Sorrow is different, again. In general, sorrow will activate the amygdala. Once again, you can't, just by looking at the amygdale, know whether that person is feeling sorrow or anger, for instance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you can know if they're feeling love?
DR. DAVID HUBBARD: Compassion, empathy for others, happens to be another area of the brain. It’s - part of the problem is the meaning of the word “emotion.” So, from a neurological point of view, emotion is more related to the visceral sensations of emotion, the actual perception of disgust or anger, whereas, for instance, love of country, that’s not really an emotion. That’s really a cognition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
DR. DAVID HUBBARD: So that when you say love for another person, there can be the meaning of what that is, as opposed to necessarily what, what visceral sensation the person is having at that time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let me ask you about a less abstract idea. How about lust? Does that light up a particular section of the brain?
DR. DAVID HUBBARD: Yes, that lights up the amygdala.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But we won't know whether someone is feeling fear, disgust or lust.
DR. DAVID HUBBARD: Just by looking at the scan, if you don't know what the experiment was, what the stimulus was, just seeing the amygdala light up, all you would know is they're increasing their emotional processing. You wouldn't know what specific emotion they were feeling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Hubbard, thank you very much.
DR. DAVID HUBBARD: Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. David Hubbard is managing director of the Applied fMRI Institute in San Diego and the lead neurologist working on the neurocinema project.