Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How Movies Manipulate Your Brain to Keep You Entertained

Colored spots indicate where subjects looked during an action sequence from Iron Man 2.

Colored spots indicate where subjects looked during an action sequence from Iron Man 2

HOLLYWOOD, California—There’s a crazy action sequence near the beginning of Iron Man 2 in which Tony Stark first meets Ivan Vanko, a rogue Russian scientist wearing a robotic suit and wielding electrified whips. It takes place at the Monaco Grand Prix, where Stark is competing, and Vanko slices up Formula 1 cars like so much toast and puts the hurt on Stark, even after he dons his Iron Man suit. For a minute there, it looks like the supercharged Russian might prevail.

For viewers, it’s quintessential, over-the-top Hollywood action. For scientists, it’s a window into the human brain. At a recent event here hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists got together with filmmakers to discuss what both groups have learned—the scientists through painstaking experiments and analysis, the filmmakers by intuition and experience—about the mechanisms of attention and perception.

In the Iron Man 2 sequence, for example, people are remarkably consistent in where they direct their gaze. Tim Smith, a vision scientist at the University of London, presented eye tracking data collected from 75 people as they watched the clip on a flatscreen. A camera tracked their eye movements, and software created a frame-by-frame heat map. When Smith played the clip with the eye-tracking heat map overlaid, the red hot spot tightly followed the action—people focused on the dueling superheroes, especially their weapons and faces, and on the car parts bouncing around (to see the clip, scroll down to the first video here).

Jon Favreau, who directed Iron Man 2, was onstage with Smith as he presented the clip, and seemed fascinated by it. “Everything you’re looking at is real, and everything you’re not looking at is fake,” he said.

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