How Movies Control Your Mind


Neurocinematics is a recent field that explores how our brains respond to movies. Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist who has dedicated much research to this field and who now works in Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute, uses fMRI and inter-subject correlation (ISC) to determine how similarly an audience’s brain reacts to films and thus how well a film is able to control its audiences’ brains. For example, when subjects were placed in an fMRI machine while watching a 30 minute clip of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” Hasson and his colleagues found that 45% of the viewers’ neocortex had high ISC. This included areas involved in primary sensory perception, such as visual areas in the occipital and temporal cortex, Heschl’s gyrus, Wernicke’s area, some limbic areas, the fusiform face area and some association cortex. However, viewers’ brains had low ISC among areas such as the supramarginal gyrus, the angular gyrus and areas in the prefrontal cortex.


In a follow-up study, Hasson compared the ISC in viewers who also watched “Bang! You’re Dead” by Alfred Hitchcock, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” by Larry David and an unstructured segment of reality clip of people listening to a concert in Washington Square. The researchers found that Hitchcock’s film achieved 65% high ISC in the cortex, followed by 45% for “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” 18% for “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and less than 5% for the reality clip (Hasson et al., 2008). The researchers concluded from these studies that film form has a widely shared effect on viewers, but that the total aesthetic experience varies considerably from person to person. In addition, certain editing and directorial techniques are better able to control viewers’ minds than others. Not surprisingly, Alfred Hitchcock, who is considered one of the greatest directors of all time and the “master of suspense,” is one of the most effective “movie mind controllers.”

Specific editing techniques

Uri Hasson is not the only neuroscientist interested in the examination of our brain on movies. Another researcher contributing to the field of neurocinematics is Washington University neuroscientist and author of the book “Flicker: Your Brain on Movies,” Jeffrey Zacks, PhD. Zacks’s research primarily focuses on the link between our brains and the world around us, including the neural and cognitive processes involved in our comprehension of films. In his 2011 study, Magliano & Zacks investigated the way continuity editing, a form of editing where a series of shots are stitched together to form a clear narrative, effects the way people perceive the events in a narrative film and the brain networks associated with the processing of these events. Participants watched a film that contained three types of shots: continuous, spatial-temporal discontinuous, and action discontinuous (Figure 1). Continuity editing allows viewers to perceive a continuously unfolding sequence of events across time, space, and action. Spatial-temporal discontinuous shots, on the other hand, are discontinuous in space or time but continuous in action. As you can see in figure 1 a boy is walking home on a street but the clip follows him as he makes his way home. Lastly, action discontinuous shots are discontinuous in action and space or time. In order to portray rough continuity in time and space, editing techniques such as cuts, fade-ins, fade-outs, or dissolves across shots are used.

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Results from the study indicated that discontinuities in action created the most problems with viewers – where new actions were perceived as new events more strongly than continuity edits or spatial-temporal discontinuities. In addition, different brain regions responded during different levels of editing discontinuity, providing evidence that specialized mechanisms are associated with higher order visually driven processes that allow viewers to maintain continuity of action despite spatiotemporal discontinuities (Magliano & Zacks, 2011). This suggests that continuity editing appears to regulate perceptual processing. In an article entitled “Neuroscientist takes scientific look at art of filmmaking,” Zacks explains, “our brains didn’t evolve to watch movies. Movies evolved to take advantage of the brains we have.” It seems as if filmmakers have, to some extent, the ability to tap into the minds of viewers and figure out what is aesthetically pleasing or not. Once we know what movies are doing to viewers scientifically, film producers can use this knowledge to make technical decisions about the film in order to maximize its engagement and potential for commercial success.

Commercial Insight

Neurocinematics might even be able to provide enough insight to predict the commercial success of a film. An integrated consumer neuroscience research firm called Innerscope Research conducted a study from 2010-2012 in which over 1,000 people were shown 40 different movie trailers while wearing “biometric belts” capturing what the researchers referred to as “emotional engagement,” comprised of skin sweat, heart rate, breathing and motion responses. Eye-tracking data was also taken to indicate participant attention. Viewers watched the trailers 6-8 weeks prior to each film’s release. Using publicly available box-office data, Innerscope researchers found a strong correlation between participants’ movie trailer emotional engagement and box office results. Researchers concluded that if a film’s trailer is unable to reach an emotional engagement threshold of 65, the film will unlikely gross less than 10 million dollars on opening weekend. By contrast, they claim that if a film reaches a score of 80 or above, the film will likely generate over 20 million dollars in box office sales opening weekend.

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This company and others alike can use these methods to evaluate film trailers before a film’s actual release, leaving enough time to reconstruct the trailer to capture greater emotional experience from the audience with the expectation of having greater opening weekend performance when the film is placed in theaters. All in all, it seems as though movie mind control through the careful editing of shots and capturing of emotion could significantly improve viewer experiences and maximize the commercial success of films.


Eveleth, R., (2013). This is Your Brain on Movies. Retrieved from:

Everding, G., (2015). Neuroscientist takes scientific look at art of filmmaking. Retrieved from:

Hasson, U., Landesman, O., Knappmeyer, B., Vallines, I., Rubin, N., & Heeger, D. J. (2008). Neurocinematics: The neuroscience of film. Projections,2(1), 1-26.

Magliano, J. P., & Zacks, J. M. (2011). The impact of continuity editing in narrative film on event segmentation. Cognitive Science, 35(8), 1489-1517.



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