Posts Tagged ‘cognitive science’

“A teeter-totter between stability and collapse?”

March 2, 2010

Well, cognitive psychologists are it again. According to this article from the Times, they’re comparing the frequency of cuts in contemporary Hollywood films to the natural rhythms with which the human brain perceives visual stimuli. The article describes this latter phenomenon as follows:

Pink noise is a characteristic signal profile seated somewhere between random and rigid, and for utterly mysterious reasons, our world is ablush with it. Start with a picture of Penélope Cruz, say, or a flamingo on a lawn, and decompose the picture into a collection of sine waves of various humps, dives and frequencies. However distinctive the original images, if you look at the distribution of their underlying frequencies, said Jeremy M. Wolfe, a vision researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “they turn out to have a one over f characteristic to them.”

[…] Track the pulsings of a quasar, the beatings of a heart, the flow of the tides, the bunchings and thinnings of traffic, or the gyrations of the stock market, and the data points will graph out as pink noise. Much recent evidence from reaction-time experiments suggests that we think, focus and refocus our minds, all at the speed of pink.

Impressed as I am that researchers would think to investigate this in the first place, I gotta admit that I’m inclined to ask the following question in response: So what? Hasn’t film form always been thought to originate, at least partially, in the mind of the individual or individuals involved in the conception and planning of a film? I’m especially skeptical about the following claim:

Plot synopsis: Movies today are, on average, much pinker than the films of half a century ago. Their shot structure has greater coherence [my emphasis], a comparatively firmer grouping together of similarly sized units that ends up lending them a frequency distribution ever more in line with the lab results of human reaction and attention times. “Roughly since 1960,” Dr. Cutting said, “filmmakers have been converging on a pattern of shot length that forces the reorientation of attention in the same way we do it naturally.”

Who would call something like, say, “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Quantum of Solace” more visually coherent than an older movie whose average shot length is 9+ seconds? If anything, the sense of disorientation that this style of découpage engenders is a reflection of modernity’s (or, rather, post-post-post-post-modernity’s) impact upon human perception and cognition, not the other way around. Of course, as Walter Benjamin argued in his writings on Soviet Montage and as Georg Simmel argued in his writings on the metropolis, the relationship between our immediate environment and our minds is nothing if not a two-way street, so who knows.

As Jean-Luc Godard once put it, “cinema today is better fitted than either philosophy or the novel to convey the basic data of consciousness.” The data in question, however, isn’t all that basic.