When Film Is Your Filter

David Shariatmadari reviews Flicker, the new book by neuroscientist Jeff Zacks that looks at “the influence of moving images on our perception of reality”:

Zacks sets out the wealth of experimental evidence which shows that a filmed version of events will likely override our knowledge of the facts. Not only because superstimuli are so compelling, but because we’re not very good at remembering the sources of information that inform our opinions. Was that in the local paper or did my friend tell me about it? Did I learn that from a history book or from watching Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth? Was I watching Osama bin Laden in the film Zero Dark Thirty or in a documentary? The political implications are huge, if not entirely unexpected: Hollywood can win hearts and minds at the expense of the truth.

In a November review of Zacks’ book, Noah Berlatsky expanded on that last point:

Why do people have such trouble distinguishing fact and fiction? The answer, Zacks argues, is that our brains are model-building machines. “The hard-core version of the model-building account,” he explains, “says that when we understand a story just by reading it, we fire off the same neural systems that we use to build models of the real world.” Zacks tried to validate this model by using fMRI scanning while people watched films—and what he discovered was that when, for example, a character on screen reaches for an object, the fMRI showed activity in the area corresponding to motor hand control. Because of these and related experiments, Zacks is convinced that “memories of our lives and memories of stories have the same shape because they are formed by the same mechanisms.” He concludes: “It is not the case that you have one bucket into which you drop all the real-life events, another for movie events, and a third for events in novels.” Your model-building brain “is perfectly happy to operate on stuff from your life, from a movie, or from a book.”

That’s “a big part of the appeal of narrative films and books,” Zacks argues. “[T]hey appeal to our model-building propensities.” But it’s also why we have trouble separating out what’s real and what’s fiction. Human brains use models to understand reality, and it doesn’t matter whether the model is labeled “fiction” or “fact.”

Update from a reader:

I am sort of embarrassed to say I know MUCH more about the presidency of Jed Bartlett and the government of his day than I have known about any in real life. The West Wing sent me to the dictionary and the encyclopedia to see which things were real and which were for dramatic effect. I learned a bunch about the real government because of that show, so I guess it’s ok, but yeah.