Movies as stimuli in cognitive neuroscience

In 2004, Dr. Uri Hasson and his colleagues published rather amazing findings in Science; they showed that brain hemodynamic activity patterns, measured with non-invasive functional magnetic resonance imaging, were highly replicable across individual volunteers who were freely viewing a 30 min clip from the feature film "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (dir. Sergio Leone, 1966). These findings elicited hopes for being able to use feature films in studies of perceptual and cognitive functions and, indeed, it was soon demonstrated that "higher-order" prefrontal cortical areas are also synchronized across subjects when viewing a feature film during brain scanning (Jaaskelainen et al. 2008). 

This week there was another step forward that is making it possible to use feature films in non-invasive cognitive neuroimaging studies. Lahnakoski et al. (2012) showed in their study published in PLoS ONE how annotating stimulus features that occur in a movie can be utilized in the analysis of the highly complex and spatiotemporally overlapping brain responses that are elicited when subjects are watching a movie. The stimulus feature time series were both used in a general linear model and correlated with independent components. The authors report that, taken together, the results encourage use of movie stimuli in non-invasive cognitive neuroimaging studies.

While the advances presented by Lahnakoski et al. are mostly methodological ones, feature films present exciting possibilities to any cognitive neuroscientist; they can be highly involving, capable of eliciting genuine emotions in experimental subjects, and often depict social interactions in a highly realistic manner along with all those subtle social cues that take place in real life. This way, movies can be highly effective in stimulating brain processes that underlie emotions and social cognition, thus potentially helping bridge one of the bigger gaps that still today exist between psychology and neuroscience.


Hasson U, Nir Y, Furhmann G, Malach R. Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision. Science (2004) 303: 1634-1640. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1089506

Jääskeläinen IP, Koskentalo K, Balk MH, Autti T, Kauramäki J, Pomren C, Sams M. Inter-subject synchronization of prefrontal cortex hemodynamic activity during natural viewing. Open Neuroimaging Journal (2008) 2: 14-19. http://dx.doi.org/10.2174/1874440000802010014

Lahnakoski JM, Salmi J, Jääskeläinen IP, Lampinen J, Glerean E, Tikka P, Sams M. Stimulus-related independent component and voxel-wise analysis of human brain activity during free viewing of a feature film. PLoS ONE (2012) 7: e35215. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0035215

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