Spoiler alert!: If you’ve seen the movie “Black Swan,” then you’ll be familiar with the scene near the end when Nina, played by actress Natalie Portman, begins to hallucinate that she is becoming the swan she will portray in a ballet as feathers grow out of her back. Nina is the protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 thriller that depicts the fierce competition in the professional ballet world through the eyes of one troubled dancer.
At a recent event hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Tel Aviv University neuroscientist Prof. Talma Hendler presented her research on the mental and emotional reaction of viewers to this particularly haunting scene. She found that when people watch the scene, their brain patterns resemble those in people with diagnosed schizophrenia. Introducing her unique research to one of the world’s foremost directors, writers and producers of psychological thrillers, Aronofsky himself was touched by her comments and encouraged by the scientific proof to back them up.
“My suggestion to you is that as Nina is getting crazier and crazier, the audience experiences something like schizophrenia,” Hendler stated to the panel’s audience, displaying the fMRI images that highlight the fascinating correlation between innocent movie watching and a serious psychological disorder.
Living a movie
At the Oscars event, Prof. Hendler explained her research on the investigating networks in the brain and their role in empathy, or the capacity to share and recognize another person’s emotions. She and her team found evidence for at least two kinds of empathy experienced in the brain when watching a film; the first was “mental empathy,” or feelings that require the viewer to step outside of their own selves and consider what another person is thinking or experiencing. The second was “embodied empathy,” or the intuitive, primal empathy that someone might feel when they witness another person getting punched or wounded.
To back up her findings, Prof. Hendler presented fMRI scans of subjects who had been asked to watch movies like “Black Swan.” Hendler observed that when viewers watched the dramatic scene of Nina pulling a feather from her back (mentioned above), their “mental empathy” network was dominant, while the “embodied empathy” was largely dim. This corresponded with similar readings in Hendler’s schizophrenic patients, who tend to rely on mental empathy even when faced with a visceral experience.
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However, Hendler did notice that feelings of “embodied empathy” were strong in viewers watching heavy emotional scenes like the touching mother-son moment in the 1998 drama-comedy, “The Stepmom.” This had a different, more ‘I’ve been there’ kind of emotional appeal to the viewers who really felt that they could relate with the characters. Differentiating between more cerebral empathy, like in the “Black Swan” and more ‘out-of-body-experience’ empathy, like in “The Stepmom,” Hendler believes that playing to these reactions, directors and screenwriters can influence what a moviegoer will experience.
Deciphering the audience
Though Hendler’s research is not complete in the sense that it analyzes reactions to a limited number films, using fMRI to identify what people are thinking when they watch a movie could crack a huge code for the movie business. But while trying to figure out how a viewer may feel during any given scene, there are still some scientific limitations to the fMRI brain-reading method. Firstly, scientists have yet to discover what each region of the brain does specifically, making it difficult to understand exactly what each scan says about brain activity. Secondly, though Hendler has keen insight on the correlation between mental empathy and schizophrenia, it should be taken into account that Nina, the main character in the “Black Swan,” would be considered by most to be a schizophrenic herself, making it difficult to draw a wider conclusion without comparing the results to a similar mind-stirring film.
Aronofsky even asserted to the panel that although his partner and co-producer Ari Handel has a PhD in neuroscience, he doesn’t usually consult him about the brain when writing a scene. Instead, they think about the audience’s emotional reaction to a particularly shocking or disturbing scene, and according to Aronofsky, “There’s always a theory of where the camera is and why it’s there.” It seems that there is still some way to go until the movie business makes films according to the viewers’ emotional and cerebral reactions, but it may not be long until the “Thriller” genre will be renamed “A Schizophrenic Experience.”
Photos: Screenshot / The Academy