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Mass Mentality: Cinematic Resonance Imaging

While you relax and watch a movie, your brain furiously digests a complex AV rush. A close-up of a face might activate a part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus. A sweeping scene of a city skyline might set off the collateral sulcus. But do our brains all see movies in the same way?

Part of the answer to this question was revealed on March 12 in the journal Science, through the use of an unlikely scientific tool: a DVD of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. A research team, led by Drs. Uri Hasson and Rafael Malach at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, scanned the brains of five subjects while they watched a 30-minute segment of the classic 1966 Clint Eastwood flick. "I really like that movie," Hasson, now a postdoc at NYU, said. "But another reason we chose it was because it has many close-ups and zoom-outs, and we wanted to see areas that responded to faces and to navigation in space."

The researchers found they could predict almost 30 percent of the response of one subject's brain to the movie from the response of another's. Brains seemed to "tick together" when watching the same movie, and activation patterns synchronized best during emotional or surprising scenes. How might Hollywood use this information? Hasson theorizes, "If you're doing focus groups, you might see if the brains all get synchronized, and you can say OK, this is a powerful movie that will work with an audience."

 
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