Neurocinema: the science that investigates what happens to us when we watch movies
Many areas of the brain are active while watching movies; films mimic the
structure of consciousness, and this imitation allows cinema to affect the
The fledging science, neurocinema, studies this phenomenon. It is a
discipline that spans the fields of neuroscience, cinema, and consciousness
The central focus is on cinema as a multidimensional art that has the power
to influence our neurophysiological structure.
The connection between movement and imagery
As reported in Naser Moghadasi’s study Neurocinema:
a brief overview,” the first steps in the study of the relationship
between cinema and the brain can be traced back to the writings of the
French philosopher Henri Bergson, who as early as 1896 explained the
relationship between movement and image in a modern way.
Cinema was taking its first steps when Bertrand Russell speculated that this
new world represented a risk factor for “the nullification of free will,”
because of the effect movies can have on the mind.
A single image can stimulate different areas of the brain, Jean-Luc Godard
would later argue, but it cannot, in any way, recall the concept of movement
in the mind. It may arouse emotions or memories, but it will never have the
same power on the human brain as moving images, ordered in a precise
sequence: and this is the main feature of a film.
We are shown a series of connected events that target our minds,
representing problems we may face in life in a focused, relevant format.
A cinematic process copies and reconstructs the structure of
Sensory, cognitive, and affective relationships of moviegoers in the
movie theater: some experiments
What does science tell us about what specifically happens in the movie
theater? One important study, reported in the above article, “Neurocinema: a brief overview”
and conducted by Hasson, examined the brain’s response and activity while
He used a new method called “inter-subject correlation analysis.” This
method allowed for the testing of the viewer’s brain activity while watching
a movie. The study showed that while watching movies such as “The Good, The
Bad, and The Ugly” and “Bang! You’re Dead,” viewers’ attention span was
higher than when watching everyday scenes in our lives.
The same difference can be seen when measuring the viewers’ average eye
movements: eye fixation while watching the aforementioned movies was
considerably higher than when watching events that happen in real life.
Thus, a well-structured film can significantly control the audience’s brain
activity and indirectly affect the audience’s consciousness structure.
At a different level than what neuroscience can study – neuronal stimuli and
physiological responses – it is even more important to examine the influence
film has on our understanding of the world and ourselves.
What is true about a fictional story?
Anthropologist Antonio Malo, in his book Svelare il mistero.Filosofia
e narrazione a confronto (“Unraveling the mystery. Philosophy and
storytelling compared”published by Santa Croce, Rome, 2021),
explains what constitutes the “truth” in fictional works. He says, “There is
a big difference between believing in something because it is truthful even
if it isn’t true, and the reality one believes because it is true even if it
isn’t truthful. The false, on the other hand, even if it is believable,
becomes neither true nor verisimilar, unlike fiction, which, when it is
believable, becomes verisimilar in its relational effects.”
Verisimilitude, then, would not refer to an event that has happened or is
happening, but to the world in which it has happened and continues to
happen, that is, human life with its passions, desires, actions, and
possible relationships. A fictional world, when verisimilar, speaks directly
to the human heart, in which there is the struggle between good and evil,
hope and anguish, friendship and enmity, heroism and betrayal.
Verisimilitude makes it possible to recreate this world, which then is not
fictitious, a hallucination, or deceptive. This is the very “truth of
Cinema, politics, economics, and propaganda
We have always known that cinema has the power to engage us, to affect us,
and to touch our consciences. Even major political movements and giants of
the economic world have known this.
Armando Fumagalli explains in his book Creatività al potere, da Hollywood alla Pixar passando per l’Italia
(“Creativity in Power, from Hollywood to Pixar via Italy”, published by
Lindau, Turin, 2013) that in the United States “some of the most senior
executives of the major film companies are part of think tanks – which
include politicians, industrialists, and intellectuals – who are highly
influential in shaping a nation’s policies, such as the Council on Foreign
Relations, or the Rand Corporation, funded by the Department of Defense.”
In the face of all this, it is easy to comprehend the propagandistic nature
that films can have.
It is good to know that when we watch a film we are “more vulnerable” and
more likely to accept, without thinking critically, the worldview that the
film writer proposes. After an initial phase of emotional involvement, it is
good to move to a second phase: that of reflexivity, to analyze and not
passively concede to the conveyed message of a film.