Tuesday, June 27, 2006

An MRI scanner darkly

I've got a feature in the 22 June issue of Nature about some neuroscientists useing Richard Linklater's films to probe how the brain responds differently to realistic and meaningful, but obviously unreal stimuli.

Raymond Mar and his colleagues used Linklater's 2001 film 'Waking Life', an movie made using a technique called rotoscoping, which involves turning video footage into animation. The researchers sat their subjects in a brain scanner and showed them clips of the original video footage, and then the animated version of the same shot.

They were particularly interested in the brain areas involved in attributing motives to others, and trying to work out what they are thinking and planning on doing. We will attribute intentionality to almost anything - characters in books, cartoons, a malfunctioning computer. But it seems, Mar's team found, that the brain areas involved fire more strongly when the stimuli are more realistic. But no one is quite sure why, or what this means.

The piece also looks at how our brains cope with the reality/fiction divide more generally, and the psychology of narrative. It seems the the suspension of disbelief is a myth, and that, as long as information comes in the form of a story, we are ready to believe almost anything.

One of the reasons I wrote this now is that Linklater has another rotoscoped film out next month, A Scanner Darkly, based on the Philip K. Dick novel. Dick, of course, was well into the untrustworthiness of our brain's picture of reality.

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