Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Neurocinema Collection™

First poster for Joseph Kahn's adaptation of William Gibson's Neuromancer?

The term "neurocinema" has been in the news lately. What does it mean? Movies with the prefix "neuro" somewhere in the title?

Titles (20 Approx Matches)

Neuro (2004)

Neurosia - 50 Jahre pervers (1995)
aka "Neurosia-Fifty Years of Perversion" - USA
aka "Neurosia" - Germany (short title)
aka "Neurosia - Who Shot Rosa von Praunheim" - USA (video box title)

Labyrinth (1959)
aka "Neurose" - Italy

Revenge in the House of Usher (1982)
aka "Neurosis"

Neuromancer (2011)

Movies having to do with neurology, such as the NEURO CINEMA FESTIVAL sponsored by the San Francisco Neurological Society?
Awakenings (encephalitis, Parkinsons Disease)

Rainman (autistic disorder)

Away From Her (Alzheimers Disease)

M (psychotic disorder)

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (stroke)
No, that's not right, either. "Neurocinema" has a short (and controversial) Wikipedia page:
Neurocinema is a new filmmaking process that studies a viewer's sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to film stimuli. Researchers use technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in activity in parts of the brain,electroencephalography (EEG) to measure activity in specific regional spectra of the brain response, and/or sensors to measure changes in one's physiological state (heart rate, respiratory rate, galvanic skin response) to learn exactly what scenes excite or disinterest the viewer.
The entry was originally marked for deletion on Sept. 25 (as a neologism with little coverage), but apparently it was reinstated after articles appeared in and This minimalistic and poorly written entry is also a source of free publicity:
Peter Katz and MindSign Neuromarketing have done early studies into neurocinema that and CNN has covered.
Dutifully following the links, here's what we learn from the CNN article:
Brain scans gauge horror flick fear factor

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Film producer Peter Katz doesn't just want his horror movies to scare you. He wants to pinpoint how frightened you are down to an exact moment in a scene.

To do that, he recently teamed up with researchers and used MRI scans of brain function to determine the degree of fright caused by certain scenes from his latest horror flick, "Pop Skull."

For the experiment, researchers at functional MRI research facility Mindsign Neuromarketing, based in San Diego, California, scanned the brain activity of a subject [NOTE: my emphasis] while she watched two scenes of his movie. Analyzing the data from the scan, they were able to pinpoint the exact moments when her brain was lit up with fear.

. . .

During Katz's experiment, researchers analyzed scans to identify the exact moment during each film scene that the viewer's amygdala -- the part of the brain linked to several emotions, including fear -- was activated, and to what degree.
Let's see where they went wrong scientifically: (1) Calling one subject "an experiment" -- was he making a movie just for her? (2) Saying fMRI can pinpoint the exact moment of anything -- there's a significant delay between initial neural firing and the peak of the hemodynamic response, which is estimated using a procedure that is not trivial for something as complex as an emotional response. (3) Using amygdala activity as a proxy for fear and thereby committing the cardinal sin of reverse inference (one cannot directly infer emotional state from the observed pattern of brain activity) -- didn't they learn from the op-ed neuroimaging fiasco in the New York Times ("This Is Your Brain on Politics")?

Then at Wired, Neurocinema Aims to Change the Way Movies are Made: [NOTE: or hyped]
Recently they finished their first full test with results that could change the way films are made. Yes, someone had to lie still in an MRI machine. The objective of the research, specifically, was to determine the brain response in the amygdala to watching scenes from the horror film Pop Skull. For those that don’t know, the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain. It’s involved in feelings of disgust, anger, lust and fear — all emotions especially elicited during a horror film. [NOTE: because it doesn't matter if your audience is feeling horny or disgusted instead of scared.]

. . .

For two sessions of 48 seconds and 68 seconds, a 24-year-old female watched two scenes from the movie while being scanned in a Siemens 3T MRI scanner. With a 20-second break in between three viewings of each scene (to refocus her eyes to center), the data was converted into a BrainMovie... and analyzed by the team at MindSign. What they saw (and what you can see in the movie) is that for most of the two movie scenes, the amygdala lit up like a Christmas tree out of fear. This activity was pinpointed to the frame, the exact scene and action that registered the response. For instance, “The scariest moment in Scene 1 came when the hand reaches further around the corner.” It is that precise.
Oh please spare me. I watched the BrainMovie and there were implausible jumps in activity from one frame to the next (compare "scary hand" at 2:42 to "scary hand again" at 2:48). Plus, don't you lose the element of surprise the second time you watch a specific scene? Who is going to see the infamous Alien chestburster scene the same way twice (i.e., 20 seconds after the first viewing)?

Then the Wired author interviewed film maker Katz and Dr. David Hubbard, "a board-certified neurologist who is the leading neurologist on the project." Although Dr. Hubbard has published respectable work on pain and headache using EMG, he has no papers at all using fMRI. Nonetheless, he is founder and chairman of The Hubbard Foundation for fMRI Research, "a charitable foundation supporting research and education in applied psychophysiology." He is also managing director of the Applied fMRI Institute, which presumably charges customers for "neuropsychological testing, neuromarketing and neurocinema, traditional academic research studies and explorations of meditation." No conflict of interest there. Oh wait, his education credits include STUDENT, Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, 2003-present. Good to know he's getting on the job fMRI training. This brain image doesn't instill a lot of confidence however given the extensive deactivation occurring outside the brain.

My final Google query was for MindSign Neuromarketing, whose motto is "Don’t rely on a focus group, or consumer’s ability to express their opinion about a product, let their minds speak for themselves." The organizational structure of MindSign was opaque at first, but I eventually discovered their scanning is done at "the cutting-edge Applied fMRI Institute, the only privately owned, market-friendly fMRI facility in the world."

In my view, the most successful aspect of this entire enterprise has been a boatload of uncritical coverage from the popular press.

For balanced blog coverage of the hype, see Neurovid: Neurocinema. And a neuromarketer presents a Scary Idea: Forget Focus Groups.

* With apologies to The Criterion Collection © 2008 for the title of this post.

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At October 07, 2009 12:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, NC.

Regarding MindSign... This is confusing. I think that NeuroFocus has acquired all the patents in the field ( ).
I suspect that there will a little war between these two.
A disturbing thing is to see the number of sellout hot shot Professors or ex-Professors who are now on the board of NeuroFocus. When you talk to them in private, many of them acknowledge it's all bogus (most of us in the field know that too well, of course). But as long as there are gullible companies willing to waste their money on this, they'll stay in business, I suppose.

At October 07, 2009 12:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The poster for Neuromancer reminds me of the imagery of "Tetsuo: The Iron Man"

At October 07, 2009 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally, the Applied fMRI Institute seems a joke to me (that ridiculous fMRI image on the fMRI site is just a minor example).

At October 07, 2009 7:43 PM, Anonymous P. Jennings said...


. . . well, maybe they'd get themselves more credibility if they do some studies and then announce how well the salmon liked the show?

At October 08, 2009 7:07 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks, Anonymous. A boost to their retirement portfolios might be the reason why so many hot shot Profs are involved in neuromarketing companies. Plus more secure funding than NIH. And it doesn't require grant writing or publication!

P. Jennings - Perhaps Craig Bennett would be willing to consult on a dead salmon study if the price was right.

At October 09, 2009 9:46 AM, Blogger Neuroskeptic said...

Ha ha ha. Oh dear. On a less ridiculous note I really like this paper about electroconvulsive therapy in movies.

I don't think there's been a movie made about fMRI yet, but someone should do it. It would have it all...

- danger: a clueless undergrad is about to take a metal chair into the magnet room! Will they be stopped in time?

- intrigue: someone from another lab "borrowed" the good head coil, but who, and will it be returned in time for the 2 o'clock scan?

- romance! A researcher falls for one of his subjects... after seeing her structural scan!

- even comedy: someone scans a fish! Featuring a cameo appearance by the dead salmon from Craig Bennett's poster!

At October 09, 2009 2:23 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Neuroskeptic - Maybe you can get funding from the Sloan Foundation (specifically Sloan Science and Film) to make your fMRI movie. There has been a short film featuring EEG, funded by Sloan and written/directed by Joyce Draganosky. I'd highly recommend watching a clip from her film The Science of Love.

Also see The EEG Mixer, featuring commentary on that funny scene:

...the hilarious "Electroencephalogram Cocktail Party" OR "The EEG Mixer"!! We can certainly forgive the confusion of fMRI and EEG results for artistic sake (and comic effect) here. The director seems to have modeled her lead character after Helen Fisher, even down to the combination of evolutionary anthropology with brain imaging. Joy Hirsh at Columbia was a scientific consultant.

At October 11, 2009 4:51 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

Hi ... I intend to study neuroscience in grad school so I think it's very important for me to come to terms with pitfalls in imaging analysis that even bona fide experts fall prey to

I'm confused about reverse inference. On the surface, it seems like you're just talking about affirming the consequent, and of course if you do that at all, it must be done carefully

On the other hand I know that non-invasive BMIs like the Twitter interface use the same approach: if there is X pattern of EEG activity, user is thinking about letter 'A', and so on

To try to understand the issue fully, I'd like to ask how you would go about trying to reckon someone's emotional state from an imaging study---if that is at all possible. (Do you need to rely on self-report, or ...?)

At October 15, 2009 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. My research is right at this juncture of mass communication and social cognitive neuroscience and it is so hard to explain why most of the stories about neurocinematics are many years away from what we actually do in the lab. Why? Because we do science, not marketing. Sigh.


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