We are looking for the right row, squeeze a pair of legs, take a seat and plunge into the blissful darkness of the cinema. Let's say we are not highbrow snobs and have come to a typical blockbuster. Bullets and pieces of skyscrapers fly, special effects and tears of a pumped-up hero in red shorts are smeared across the screen - his brother in mission and wardrobe departs into another world. What do we see here besides the flat scenario? Flat screen. Why are we poking around from both?

Indistinct perception

Seeing fake New York and fake people, we believe in their physical truth from the very first shot. Those guys who ran out of the hall at the shows of Lumiere's "The Arrival of the Train" believed even more, but habit saves us. But technically, the perception is the same for those impressionable and for us, and it is never direct.

For example, when we see a real birch tree by the road, the retina of our eye registers it as a simple sensory stimulus. Then we process the signal, building a system of relationships (parts to the whole, figures to the ground, etc.) and compose the "preferred percept" - the view of a particular tree as a three-dimensional object.

Why does cinema seem so real to us?

At the same time, the brain is very important to save resources, and it always chooses between accuracy and speed. As a rule, in favor of the latter - it helped the ancestors to survive.

We come up with a "preferred percept", attaching to it past knowledge of a stable external world and the associated expectations. As a result, the brain receives a picture that is not reducible to the received data.

According to Jerome Bruner, one of the largest cognitive scientists in the world, "perceptual and cognitive activity always go 'beyond information'", perception includes description, problem solving and inference, and our feelings are engaged in "effort after meaning." That is why the screen, like any two-dimensional picture, is so easy to cheat on us.

Even in the movies, something is constantly moving, and this is another trap for our long-formed brain. Purely physiologically, we do not lose interest in what is happening, even if it is "Satantango" seven and a half hours long, since our eye, sharpened by evolution for a reaction to the emergence of a new one, is constantly in positive tension, like on a hunt.

Someone would ask about another difference between a motion picture and a simple picture - editing. Why is New York being smashed to pieces, shots change at the speed of light, and we didn't even take our eyes off? The answer is: led. Or rather, they pulled it. Our eyeball constantly jumps in leaps and bounds two to three times per second. We also often blink, and we ignore some of the information that gets to the retina as garbage.

If we recorded all the information provided to us, we would simply burn out from its abundance (the periphery of our vision is generally blurred, and HD quality is formed only in the middle of the field - the “central fovea”). In a word, for our eyes a priori there is nothing captured in one frame.

And, as psychologist and cognitive film critic Jeffrey Sachs writes, "while we don't perceive visual information as part of an action scene from Paul Greengrass's films, it is."

According to the founder of cognitive film studies, Joseph Anderson, the brain, in principle, does not distinguish between the processing of screen and real stimuli. The experiments of psychologists Daniel Levine and Daniel Simons, who introduced the world to a perceptual bug called change blindness, show this in a funny and graphic way. They first tried their hand at cinema, putting together a short footage from one scene: a conversation at lunch.

In each shot, the details of the environment changed: the color of the plates, the food, the giant colored scarves on the characters. But viewers who found the scene entertaining didn't notice.

Levin and Simons then conducted a similar experiment on the street. Two similarly dressed actors pestered random people to get directions. In the middle of the conversation, the other actors carried a giant green door between the speakers, and the first actors changed places. And again: 30% of people did not notice that they were already talking to another person. Levin and Simons also have some cool experiments with a giant gorilla among ball players, which few people noticed either.

Although in the course of bloodthirsty evolution our brains were not formed at all so that we could enjoy the assembled dynamic pictures, at the output it turned out to be ideally suited for this. But, as Joseph Anderson writes, cinema manipulates our perception primarily with the help of other tricks: character development and storytelling.

Why does cinema seem so real to us?

Indistinct empathy

In order to successfully predict and not interrupt the perception for thinking, the brain learned to determine the moment of the beginning of an event and its end, to highlight the internal cause-and-effect relationship of events.

The brain is geared towards connectivity and consistency.

On a macro scale, this is expressed in the fact that we are everywhere and everywhere looking for narratives, identifying narratives and easily composing over, if not found.

We have already told you in detail about dependence on stories here, so here we will talk more about the development of movie characters.

In one of the experiments, the neurologist Talma Handler, who studies emotions and their role in mental illness, threw the subjects into fMRI and put them on the "Black Swan" (the heroine in it effectively goes While Darren Aronofsky visualized Natalie Portman's reincarnation as a bird, fMRI visualized the reactions of the viewers' brains. It turned out that most of them were very similar to schizophrenic.

Aronofsky, when he was informed of this, was delighted, and the neurologists explained that it was all about empathy. Or rather, how exactly it is used.

The Handler team distinguishes two types of empathy: mental (mentally putting ourselves in the place of another) and embodied, or visceral, (manifested in "ayyy".

Schizophrenics, faced with a visceral experience, continue to use mental empathy, while others automatically connect to it. Watching scenes where Natalie Portman physically mangles, the audience did not respond to her suffering with empathy embodied.

What exactly happened to them remained a mystery. The director suggested that the audience was trying too hard to figure out what was happening on the screen, that is, they were analyzing too much. Another explanation is more effective - the audience empathized with Portman so much, going with her the whole difficult path of a derailing person, that they identified with her schizophrenic heroine.

The system of "mirror neurons", which is more common in modern science than Godard's films at festivals, helps us to worry about movie heroes.

In short, we are talking about the nerve cells of the brain that are activated when we encounter the Other. They allow us to imagine what is in his head, what he feels, what he thinks, help to determine whether he is a friend to us, an enemy, or we will soon find ourselves in bed together. Mirror neurons provide us with the basis for communication.

But to understand each other on a deeper level and identify with movie heroes, we are helped by the theory of mind (in the poor Russian version - "theory of mind", and in the less poor - "model of the psyche of another person").

This is the ability to build an integral map of motivations, intentions and states of another person, the ability to "enter" his consciousness and predict his actions and reactions. Theory of mind is the basis and guarantee of empathy.

Both systems allow us to be imbued with cinema, and not to be assholes in everyday life. But there are also interesting facts: our ability to get into the skin of another and understand other people is being pumped.

Our own body also helps us emotionally to worry about movie characters. You've probably seen funny videos of experiments, where the whole subway car begins to laugh at one laughing person. The brain reacts to the sound of laughter and tells the muscles of the face to “get ready” for the fun.

Why does cinema seem so real to us?

In the language of neurophysiology, we are talking about the "rule of the mirror" (cognitive film expert Jeffrey Sachs, whom we mentioned earlier, calls it the "do what you see" rule). It is derived from the theory of William James, which states:

emotion follows bodily reaction (we do not laugh because we have fun, but we have fun because we laugh).

For example, if you hold a pencil between your teeth, the same muscles will work as when you smile; and when watching the movie, we will experience more positive emotions. Psychological advice is based on this in the spirit of “smile to yourself more often during the day, and in a week you will see a positive difference in your condition”.

The Mirror Rule comes with another trick - the rule of success (do what works).

While we watch the jumble of intense movement on the screen, our body continually twitches and activates by virtue of Darwinian “principle of associated habits”. It says that over time we develop certain movements to satisfy desires or solve problems (for example, a grimace of anger is designed to intimidate the enemy), but when similar emotions or sensations arise, we perform exactly the same movements. Even if they no longer have any sense (a grimace of anger appears when watching a movie, although we have no one to intimidate).

It turns out that we "mirror" what is seen on the screen: we turn on bodily reactions in response to emotions, and emotions - in response to bodily reactions. And we get stuck in a psychophysiological loop.

The creator of biomechanics, Meyerhold, aimed at the bull's-eye when he wrote: "The position of our body in space affects everything that we call emotion, intonation in a pronounced phrase, as if there is some kind of push into the brain."

We are illegible

Thanks to evolution, even if we are snobbish three times, we still experience at the sight of an action scene where a hero in red shorts is on the verge of death. The neighbor on the right will be moved, the neighbor on the left will move forward with his whole body, and we will all show similar patterns of brain activity. In the world of neuroscience, this mass market of the same type of emotions is called causing the same electrical activity of the skin and the same indicators on fMTR.

Intersubjective correlation is a good capitalist tool. For example, you can use it to find out how popular a movie will be at the box office.

In the course of the Innerscope study, scientists tested the cinematic novelties on 1000 subjects for two years, recording the "emotional impact": sweating, heart rate, sensory responses and respiratory activity.

Viewers watched the trailers 2–2.5 months before the film's release, and based on the data, the researchers formulated a prediction: if the film reaches the average level of emotional intensity (65), then the film is likely to generate at least $ 10 million in revenue on its first weekend. And if the emotional threshold exceeds 80, then the producer will grab a good commission, because the commercial profit will increase to 20 million or more. The forecast works amazingly well, the film industry is cutting royalties.

We watch comedies and our blood vessels dilate by 22%, as if we were not laughing in front of a screen but sweating on a treadmill. Romantic movies increase the level of the hormone progesterone, which is responsible for sex drive, happiness around loved ones, and other amenities.

If you shove us into fMRI and show words like "coffee", "cinnamon" and "pink perfume", then the screen will light up not only the areas of the tongue processing, but also the primary olfactory cortex, as if it were actually smelling. We interpret interactions with fictional characters as real social meetings - when reading about contact and during actual contact, we stimulate the same neurological areas.

The human brain - yours, the brain of a brilliant director or a bad actor, an economic analyst or the author of articles on "Knife" - basically does not care whether it lives something in real life or in virtual life. The only question is what and how is it worth feeding our such omnivorous brain.