Mass Concentration

Contemplating how TV shows become addictive, Andrew Romano looks to a study (pdf) that suggests certain formats command more of our attention:

Employing fMRI technology, [psychologist Uri] Hasson and his neuroscience colleagues screened four film clips—from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Bang! You’re Dead,” Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and an unedited, single-camera shot of New York’s Washington Square Park—and then watched as viewers’ brains reacted. Their goal? To measure the degree to which different people would respond the same way to what they were seeing.

The results varied widely, depending on which film was shown. The unstructured, “realistic” video from Washington Square Park, for instance, elicited the same neurological reaction in only about 5 percent of viewers. Responses to Curb Your Enthusiasm were slightly more correlated, at roughly 18 percent; and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ranked even higher, 45 percent. But ultimately, Hitchcock was the runaway “favorite”: a full 65 percent of the study’s cerebral cortices lit up the same way in response to the clip from “Bang! You’re Dead.”

Hasson’s conclusion was fascinating:

[T]he more “controlling” the director—the more structured the film—the more attentive the audience. “In real life, you’re watching in the park, a concert on Sunday morning,” Hasson tells me. “But in a movie, a director is controlling where you are looking. Hitchcock is the master of this. He will control everything: what you think, what you expect, where you are looking, what you are feeling. And you can see this in the brain. For the director who is controlling nothing, the level of variability is very clear because each person is looking at something different. For Hitchcock, the opposite is true: viewers tend to be all tuned in together.”

Is it possible, then, that the recent trend toward more structured, page-turning narratives on television might be generating ever-higher levels of cerebral correlation—and viewer engagement—in living rooms across the country?

“Absolutely,” Hasson says.