What Happens When Your Brain is on Alfred Hitchcock: The Neuroscience of Film

If you have 22 minutes, why not sit back and watch the classic piece of television above, Alfred Hitchcock Presents‘ 1961 episode “Bang, You’re Dead”? You may well have seen it before, quite possibly long ago, but you’ll find it holds up, keeping you in suspense today as artfully as it or any other Hitchcock production always has. But why do we get so emotionally engaged in this simple tale of a five-year-old boy who comes into possession of a real handgun that he mistakenly thinks a harmless toy? Here with detailed answers rooted in the mechanics of the human brain, we have “Neurocinematics: the Neuroscience of Film,” a presentation by Uri Hasson of Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute. Hitchcock conceived of his style of cinema, says Hasson in the clip below, as “doing experiments on the audience,” and of a movie itself as “a sequence of stages designed to have an effect on your brain.”

The brains of everyone sitting in the theater thus, theoretically, all become “resonant and aligned with the movie in a very powerful and complicated way.” Various types of research bear this out, from measuring the skin temperature, perspiration, and blood flow in the brains of subjects as they watch Hitchcock’s young protagonist add more “toy” bullets to the “toy” gun he brandishes around the neighborhood. In the clip below, you can see exactly how the scientists’ functional MRI machines scan the viewers as they watch the episode, whose plot, as one of the research team puts it, “keeps the participants a bit on their feet,” flat on their back though they need to remain for the duration. You’ll find the watching experience much more comfortable in your chair. It won’t produce much data for the scientific community, but at least now you’ll know what goes on in your brain as it happens, something about which even Hitchcock himself could only guess. To conduct your own experiments, see our collection of 21 Free Hitchcock Movies Online.

Related Content:

Alfred Hitchcock Explains the Plot Device He Called the ‘MacGuffin’

Alfred Hitchcock on the Filmmaker’s Essential Tool: ‘The Kuleshov Effect’

Hitchcock’s Seven-Minute Editing Master Class

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.


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  1. Rain,adustbowlstory says . . . | February 13, 2014 / 9:42 am

    I still don’t get why people like to be scared.

  2. Randolph Peters says . . . | February 13, 2014 / 10:42 am

    “I still don’t get why people like to be scared.”

    It’s called a paradox of the heart.

  3. AB says . . . | February 16, 2014 / 7:22 am

    Thanks for posting this. I had watched it long ago and remembered the theme but not the name. Also, thanks for allowing the analysis and science to speak for itself and not preaching about what every “responsible” gun owner and parent should be scared about: The lack of responsibility in a nation full of “accidents.” (Reference: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html).

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