Monday, October 12, 2009

The Hyperscanning of 'Paranormal Activity': A Neurocinematic Study of Collective Fear

Still from the promotional trailer for that viral movie phenomenon, Paranormal Activity.

Not since The Blair Witch Project (1999)1 ten years ago (in the BT [Before Twitter] dark ages) has there been such a grassroots "underground" buzz surrounding a cult-like, deliberately amateur, mega-scary, "found" reality footage-type movie. Unlike its predecessor, Paranormal Activity does get to benefit from Twitter as a trending topic:
Paranormal Activity is a popular topic on Twitter right now.

A ultra low-budget horror film about a couple experiencing demonic forces at night. The US limited release was Sept. 29, 2009, and there will supposedly be a nationwide release if it gets a million votes on Eventful.

51 more tweets since you started searching.

Here's the trailer:

Beyond word-of-mouth from the original target demographic attending midnight shows in college towns, mainstream media outlets such as CNN have picked up on the buzz:
Surprise hit 'Paranormal Activity' scares money out of moviegoers

updated 8:01 p.m. EDT, Mon October 12, 2009

(CNN) -- The new horror movie "Paranormal Activity" could be filling movie studio marketing departments with fear.

Using a campaign of limited showings, social media and word-of-mouth fan buzz, the film has managed to become a breakout hit without the aid of a glitzy marketing campaign -- or even a traditional movie trailer.

According to Variety, the very low-budget film (it reportedly cost $11,000), which played in fewer than 200 theaters, raked in $7.1 million over the weekend -- a record for a limited-release film. The film had an impressive $44,163 per-screen average and placement in the top five of the box office ratings over the weekend.
Most relevant for the ongoing Neurocinema Collection™ is this observation:
"Watching it with 250 strangers in a movie theater and getting everybody to jump at the same time definitely has an effect," [Kevin Carr] said. "It's the event film right now of the year, which is something that needs to be experienced."
"Watching it with 250 strangers in a movie theater" is the key phrase. We'll return to that later.

In the last post we learned about the new interdisciplinary field of “neurocinematic” studies. The term first appeared2 in the scholarly journal Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, in a 2008 paper written by Hasson and colleagues:
This article describes a new method for assessing the effect of a given film on viewers’ brain activity. Brain activity was measured using fMRI during free viewing of films, and inter-subject correlation analysis (ISC) was used to assess similarities in the spatiotemporal responses across viewers’ brains during movie watching. Our results demonstrate that some films can exert considerable control over brain activity and eye movements. However, this was not the case for all types of motion picture sequences, and the level of control over viewers’ brain activity differed as a function of movie content, editing, and directing style. We propose that ISC may be useful to film studies by providing a quantitative neuroscientific assessment of the impact of different styles of filmmaking on viewers’ brains, and a valuable method for the film industry to better assess its products.
The NYU researchers, led by Uri Hasson (now at Princeton), claim to study "to what extent are we all alike?"3 The research program originated in the laboratory of Prof. Rafael Malach and first hit the Science scene in 2004. In that study, five participants watched the first 30 min of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in an MRI scanner. The data were analyzed to determine commonalities in brain activation across subjects, revealing that 25% of the cortex showed significant intersubject correlation during the movie. The Projections article summarizes the results from subsequent experiments and develops the idea that different directors, and different filmmaking styles, exert varying levels of "control" over audio-visuo-higher-level cortical responses in the brains of the viewers.

This is all very interesting, you say, but it doesn't mimic the real life movie-going experience. How can you possibly evaluate the neural effects of watching a scary movie in a theater with 250 strangers?

The Hyperscanning of 'Paranormal Activity': A Neurocinematic Study of Collective Fear

In this imaginary experiment,4 the viewing experience is enhanced through several means. While in laying supine in the MRI scanner, individual research participants watch a specially-made DVD of Paranormal Activity shot from the perspective of the audience, as in the trailer. To encouraging bonding among the research subjects, the cool "hyperscanning" methodology is used. This technique was developed by Read Montague and his co-workers (Montague et al., 2002). Typically, hyperscanning involves two subjects who interact with each other while their brains are scanned simultaneously (in adjoining or distant magnets). Specially developed software (Networked Experiment Management Objects, or NEMO) coordinates the experiments across sites:
The scarcity of neuroimaging resources limits the ability to perform multi-subject experiments within the same facility, necessitating the ability to simultaneously scan across multiple institutions. Furthermore, in order to correlate behavior and brain activation among participants, sites participating in Hyperscan experiments must be synchronized so that the behavioral and imaging data gathered during the experiment can be reconciled to a common timeline.

Professional software developers at the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory (HNL) have created a distributed framework for executing Hyperscan experiments. The framework, called NEMO, consists of client and server components written in Java, a SQL database for storing experiment metadata and results, an experiment script execution environment based on the Jython scripting language, and pulse-sequence customizations to facilitate network-initiated scanning.
For our fright-filled neurocinematic study, five friends are scanned simultaneously. Each subject is informed that he/she will be watching the movie at the exact same time as the others, experiencing the exact same scanner environment (which can be claustrophobic, even under calm conditions). They're instructed that they must be still. They're asked to view the movie as a shared experience -- shared with the audience and with their friends. In an alternate scenario, ten strangers can meet each other beforehand through video conferencing and follow the same procedures. In either case, the data are analyzed for intersubject correlations not only in the cortex, but also in subcortical regions important for emotion (amygdala) and memory (hippocampus).

What percentage of brain activity will be correlated across subjects? Hasson et al. (2008) discussed the continuum of control employed by filmmakers: real life --> documentaries --> art films --> Hollywood --> propaganda. The filmmaking style of PA is not at all sophisticated in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which
evoked similar responses across all viewers in over 65 percent of the cortex, indicating a high level of control of this particular episode on viewers’ minds.
Nevertheless, despite using shaky-cam real life amateurish filmmaking with little editing, the viewers' attention is directed to restricted locations: the bed, the door, the hallway, Katie Featherston's breasts [just out of frame, but there are a lot of deliberate close-ups], her face. These would activate category-specific regions in the visual processing stream: the parahippocampal place area, the fusiform face area, the extrastriate body area. Importantly, emotional reactions might be similar among like-minded friends, adding a new dimension to the ISC data.

But will the study provide a privileged (neural) measure of collective fright, beyond what can be revealed by eye movements and by peripheral autonomic responses such as heart rate and skin conductance? I don't know, but it'll sure make for great articles in Wired and CNN. And Science. Be sure to mention me in the Acknowledgments.

What is my opinion of Paranormal Activity? I went to the late show tonight, and I have to say...... the movie is WAY overrated.5 I didn't find it scary at all. You're waiting so long for something to happen, that a slight noise or movement of the door or a brief shadow are supposed to be scary. I kept waiting to jump out of my seat but never did, not even in the last 30 seconds. The trailer for Shutter Island was more frightening.


1 I thought BWP was highly overrated and not scary at all.

2 Correct me if I'm wrong.

3 From a neuroscientific standpoint, certain aspects of these findings can be considered trivial, as noted by an anonymous commenter. For this post, I have adopted a willing suspension of disbelief for artistic purposes.

4 For an earlier post about another fake experiment, see The Neurology of Twitter:
It was bound to happen. Some neuroimaging lab will conduct an actual fMRI experiment to examine the so-called "Neural Correlates of Twitter" -- so why not write a preemptive blog post to report on the predicted results from such a study, before anyone can publish the actual findings?
5 For like-minded reviews, see the Austin Chronicle and the New York Times.


Hasson U, Landesman O, Knappmeyer B, Vallines I, Rubin N, Heeger DJ. (2008). Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film. Projections 2:1-26. [PDF]

Hasson U, Nir Y, Levy I, Fuhrmann G, Malach R. (2004). Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natural Vision. Science 303:1634-1640.

Montague PR, Berns GS, Cohen JD, McClure SM, Pagnoni G, Dhamala M, Wiest MC, Karpov I, King RD, Apple N, Fisher RE. (2002). Hyperscanning: simultaneous fMRI during linked social interactions. Neuroimage 16:1159-64.

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At March 30, 2010 12:18 AM, Blogger Alexandra Gulkin said...

Love all your entries! Though I've just read through only three... Very interesting material, comprehensive and creative! I have TLE and often experience Hypergraphia, though I had no idea there existed a correlation between the two until my recent tonic-clonic cluster, where I had been writing for days without stopping, and one my concious mind began to return, I had the same desire to finish my depiction of Science Today defining the sensation of "Love" as a force of Ferromagnetism. Thanks for all the info!


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