Friday 12 November 2021

Cinema and cognition - our brain as an unreliable narrator

One of the most famous essays in contemporary philosophy is Thomas Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat" from 1974. It is about consciousness, what it is and how we can talk about it, and the question of the mind/body dichotomy. He used the example of trying to comprehend what it would be like to be a bat, something that is close to us (bats are also mammals) but at the same time very alien, to illustrate his point. But I think we might also say that it is difficult to properly know what it is like to be another person, any other person, than ourselves, and that this is relevant for our discussions about films as well.

Something that science tells us is that our brains present us with a subjective, skewed, version of the world. (Sources and links are at the end of the article.) It does not mean that there is no objective truth, there is, only it is often out of our reach. In short, what we perceive of the world is not to be entirely trusted, and is not the whole story. Our brains filter the world for us, and without us being conscious of it doing so it is emphasising some things and ignoring other things. But we are unaware of this, or in denial of it, as we like to think that we (our conscious selves) are in charge. 

A common example, easy to understand, of how our brains adapt our perception of the world for us is the fact that sometimes after you have bought a new car you suddenly discover a lot of other cars of the same model. If you buy a Peugeot 208, it might seem as if many just got the same idea because now you see Peugeot 208s "everywhere". But it is not that it is suddenly more common, it is that your brain has adjusted to the fact that you now own this model and is therefore automatically noticing others like it. This is sometimes referred to as the "frequency illusion" although I do not know whether that is a term used by cognitive scientists. Obviously, the kind of car also matters. You do not have to own a Volvo in dark or grey colours to notice plenty of them on the streets of Stockholm, and even if you buy a new Aston Martin, you are unlikely to see many others.

Another example is the famous one with the dancing gorilla. A short film of people playing basketball is shown and the viewers are asked to consider, for example, the colour of the players' clothes. After the film is over, the viewers are asked if they saw the dancing gorilla that suddenly appears in the middle of the film. Many have not noticed it at all, as our brains filter out information that is superfluous to the given task, such as the presence of a gorilla. Some have likened this to the brain having a spam filter, but like most spam filters it can filter out things we might need.

These things are obviously at work when it comes to experiencing films, and how we approach and remember film history.

When reading a review/article or listening to someone talk about a film, it is often easy to get the impression that they are talking about some other film, not the same one you just saw. And in a way you could say that it is a different film since our individual experiences are not the same. Not just in matters of taste, but in the way our brains engage with the film without us being aware of it. While our brains, for one reason or another, have chosen for us what is most in need of attention, something else might be as important that we will miss, because our brains filtered it out, and since each person's brain will do this in a unique way, each experience will be different.

Your mood also matters, and things like whether you are a pessimist or an optimist, or whether you have eaten, or maybe have eaten something that your stomach disagreed with. Several experiments have shown that we are unduly influenced in our judgements because of such external matters. For example, judges in criminal courts are not consistent in how they pass judgement. One famous investigation into this showed that criminals are more likely to be given parole if the judges have recently eaten. The more hungry or tired they are, the less lenient they become. There is no reason to suppose that it is not the same when we watch films. Whether something irrelevant to the film itself, such as the state of your stomach, influences the feelings towards the film is not something we have reason to dismiss. It probably does. As in, for example, being annoyed with something in the film that would not have annoyed you if you were not distracted by stress, pain, hunger, or something else.

Another way we are misled is by being tricked by prejudices. A colleague once complained about the "excessive use of music" in a film we were discussing (I have forgotten which film) even though the film hardly had any music at all. Before he saw the film, my colleague had convinced himself that it would have lots of music, and the lack of music in the film did not manage to sway his prejudice. This is quite common in how people respond to any new film they watch with a certain actor or by a certain director, or in a certain genre. If they have convinced themselves that films by that filmmaker will have certain traits, they will say that the latest film by that filmmaker had them, even if the traits were not present in this particular film, and this is especially true if these traits were something the person disliked. I have experienced many examples of this. The scientific term for this would probably be anchoring and adjustment heuristic (or bias). And as I have written before, how you present a film for your students or what you ask them to look for, before a screening, will influence how they watch the film, and how they respond to it, and this is something to consider as well. It will not affect all of them in the same way, but it will inevitably be there. Sometimes this is appropriate, but sometimes a more unprejudiced screening, without any introduction, might be more revealing.

Watching a film is difficult for our brains, as there is so much going on simultaneously, the sound, the images, the actors, the story, and these things can work together or be in contrast with each other, intentionally or unintentionally. This means that to grasp the whole of what is going on, you need to pay a lot of attention and probably watch it several times. Not all things attract our attention in the same way. Colours, movement, and text are for example especially good at attracting our attention, unconsciously. Our eyes are automatically drawn to them, on films as elsewhere. Good filmmakers use this to their advantage. But it also means that we are easily distracted by these things, if they happen beside the screen, or even on the screen. Subtitles will draw our eyes, even when we do not need them, and while they are often necessary they have an impact on our ability to take in the entirety of the image, so that it is incomplete in ways that may or may not be meaningful. (A woman once said that she disliked subtitles when watching films because they hid the shoes of the characters.) There are those who claim that focusing on the images and actors' faces and such is immaterial, that the only thing that matters is the story, but they are wrong. There are hardly any films in which vital information is not provided by sounds and images, and if you ignore those aspects you will also deny yourself the full experience and meaning of the film. This is not, despite what some claim, an elitist assumption but a basic acceptance of the way the medium works. It also means that Facebooking or scrolling through your Instagram feed while watching, or watching the film on the phone, will with certainty make you miss things, some of it possibly vital, and you should not assume that you have understood the whole of the film. (Despite what is often said, humans are in general not good at multitasking.)
Given all of this, we should always be somewhat suspicious of our reactions to things, including films. Did we get it? Can we with earned confidence say that we have given the film, all aspects of it, the necessary attention? Have we been misled by our prejudices or been distracted by things that are not in the film itself? These are not always easy questions to answer, but any honest discussion about cinema needs to bear them in mind. We cannot trust our brains to provide us with the whole picture.


Related to this is the fact that our memories are unreliable as well. What we remember are not necessarily how things were. Sometimes a memory is a composite of separate occasions, sometimes it is partial, and sometimes it is invented. Something we believe we distinctly remember can be something that never happened. The challenge is that unless we are able to verify our memories, we cannot know with certainty which ones are accurate and which ones are not, which ones are real and which ones are made up.

I usually say that either the Bond film Thunderball (1965) or Vertigo (1958) was the first film I bought on VHS tape. But I have no idea if this is true. It might have been some other film (Ice Station Zebra (1968) is a possible contender), but even though it might be wrong I still stay with that story because I like what it says about my teenage self. There is another connection between Thunderball and unreliable memory. I watched it, and all other Bond films, regularly as a teenager and in my early 20s but then there was a long gap when I did not pay much attention to them. In my thirties I decided to rewatch them all, and about Thunderball there was one scene in particular that I remembered, of a man being killed. I remembered the characters, their movements, and the space in which the scene took place. But when I rewatched the film, the scene was not in it. There was not even a scene like it. This scene I so vividly remembered did not exist. My brain had invented it. And, as soon as I discovered that, I forgot the scene. When I started writing this paragraph I first wanted to describe the scene in detail, but I soon discovered that I could not. The scene which was once real and tangible to me, despite not existing and me never having experienced it, is now almost completely forgotten. (I have previously written about a memory of going to see a particular film as a child, and then one day discovering that there never was such a film.)

In the recent documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018), David Edelstein mentions how she had seen the release of the re-edited version of Touch of Evil (1958) with him, and how he was amazed by how she remembered exactly what the previous version had been like and therefore could tell immediately what was new. But how would he know if she was right? Unless he wrote down what she said and then went home to watch the other version, comparing it to what she had said, he had no reason to assume that she remembered it correctly. And neither had she.

When people write or talk about films it is rarely with any awareness of these issues. People often talk about films they have not seen in years or decades as if they were fresh in their minds, but even if it feels like it, it may not be, and probably will not be, the case. Whenever I need to write about a film I have not seen recently, I always try to re-watch it or research it, or at the very least read the Wikipedia plot summary. It is often the case that I am surprised, and have to rewrite or, if I have not begun writing yet, re-think what I wanted to write. Sometimes I cannot write about some particular film I had in mind because what I thought was in it turned out to not be there, and hence it was no longer relevant for whatever argument I wanted to make.

Today it is easier to check and double-check the films than it was when film theory got going in earlier decades. Those writers had to rely on their memories to a large extent, as had critics and historians too, and this accounts for some of the many problems with film theory and film history. With our memories being unreliable, they were to some extent writing in the dark. And, as we humans tend to do, they could also inadvertently "choose" how to remember things so that what they remembered fit the theory they were putting forward. I am not saying that they deliberately invented or distorted things (although that happens too) but that our brains play tricks with us in all sorts of ways, and if we need something to be a certain way our brains can easily make sure that we remember it in such a way, whether it is true or not. That might be said to be a form of confirmation bias.

A popular research area in film studies today is to ask people about their memories of cinema-going habits of the past. What it was like for them to go to the movies when they were young for example. This is a minefield, for the reasons given above. Their memories will not necessarily tell you much of how it was like to go to the movies in the past, as their memories are unreliable. I have done such experiments with students, where they have asked their grandparents about what it was like going to the cinema when they were young, or what kind of films and stars they liked. The answers could be completely bananas. They were remembering seeing films when they were ten even though the films in question were released some ten years later. They were remembering going to cinemas that had either closed down by then or had not opened yet. Their memories of how much a ticket cost were make-believe, with the prices being a fraction of what it really was. It was more interesting as a research project into how memories work than as research into how it was to go to the cinema in the 1940s or 1950s or 1960s. But that was not the intention.


The thing to keep in my mind is that we all, myself included, have fallen victim to all or most of these biases, fallacies, and unreliable memories; it is inevitable. We are humans, and these spring from evolution, and evolution of cognition. So is also the tendency for us to identify these problems more easily when they appear in others, and rarely acknowledge them in ourselves. The purpose of this article is not to blame people for this or that, only to point out that there are aspects to us, as humans, that can trip us up and mislead us, that our brains are unreliable narrators, that we should acknowledge this, and be more careful and diligent in our work.

I should mention the replication crisis, which has been rippling through the social sciences and psychology for some 15 years now. It refers to the fact that many studies, including some famous and influential ones, have been proved to be wrong, or have severe problems, or are impossible to replicate, i.e. when researchers do the experiment again, they do not get the same results as the first, famous, case. You can read more here and here. One of the more prominent psychologists working on these issues is Daniel Kahneman, famous for his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. You can read his concerns about the replication crisis here and here.

What I am talking about in this article is well-documented and has been replicated. About the gorilla test, you can read more here and here. I suspect though that this gorilla test has lost some of its capability as many have heard of it now. When I first saw it, I already knew about it, and therefore I immediately spotted the gorilla when it appeared, as that is what my brain was focused on. But now, scientists can instead play tricks with it, of people's awareness of it, and adding some other, new, weird thing happening that those who are waiting for the gorilla instead miss.

More about "frequency illusion" here.
About "confirmation bias" here, here and here.
Research papers about judges and their stomachs here and here.

Research paper on colour psychology here.
Some articles about our unreliable memories here, here, here, and here.
About the difficulties with multitasking here, here, and here.

Thomas Nagel is a philosopher who is particularly interested in the mind/body issue, and I sometimes wonder if the style/substance issue in film is not a relative of the mind/body issue.