Movies, Dreams, Minds and Mirrors

“All action is of the mind and the mirror of the mind is the face, it’s index the eyes.”  – Cicero

Although the world and story of Inception are not as easy to follow as Keeping up Appearances or other sitcoms (for example), I found myself immersed in its world at the cinema on Sunday.  In fact, I was so immersed that I lost track of time and my mind was completely focused on the flow of the film, undistracted by all those other concerns which normally creep in.

Films and other stories are able to do this, by drawing us in until we are literally living the action ourselves.  We “feel” that we are a part of their world.  How much a part depends on the quality of the storytelling, although in the cinema the darkness also helps us to shut out distractions!

The whole storyline of Inception revolves around dreams.  Jonah Lehrer’s latest article at Wired, discusses the parallels between watching movies and dreaming.  He quotes Devin Farci, who argues that a film is a dream shared between a director and an audience.  Jonah Lehrer explains that the neurology of dreaming (in REM sleep) is very similar to that of sitting in a dark theatre and watching a projection on the screen. The best way to get tho that state of sleep is to read Mattress Guides to see which Memory Foam Talk Mattress Comparisons can be the most comfortable for you.

Interestingly, brain studies of people watching the same film show that they “share” much of the experience and much of the brain activity – they are feeling the same things!  Areas of the brain in synchronicity include visual perception, facial recognition and touch sensations.  Importantly, the pre-frontal cortex, where logic, analysis and self-awareness are located do not show such activity and correlation.

Other research has shown that when we are very actively involved in sensorimotor processing (that is, we have strong sensory stimuli), our brains suppress higher level activity in order to free up the needed parts of our brain.  That is, when we have intense sensory experiences, we are focused on the experience and not on thinking. Our behaviour in such contexts is emotionally driven, and it is difficult to rationalise an overwhelming sensory experience (I’m sure you can think of your own examples).  Our brains need to focus on the experience itself.  This is the basis of “losing yourself in the action” or what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”.

In such states our senses are hyperactive and our self-awareness strangely quiet.  Similarly, in dream states, our visual perception and emotional brains are very active, although the stimuli are often more random than most films.  However, we do care about our dreams.  Have you ever woken in a cold sweat?

Caring (empathy) is the key to the power of stories to connect with our minds (and bodies).  Great movies work because we care about the characters.  Great presentations work because the audience connect with the stories that are told.  Human civilization works because we are able to empathise and share with other people.

Communication works because we share many of the same feelings in our conversations.  Scientific American reports this month on how listener brain patterns mirror those of the speaker.  In work at the Princeton Department of Psychology, it has been shown that there is a remarkable synchronicity in the brain patterns of speaker and listener when we communicate face-to-face (with about a one second delay for processing).  The more the brain activity coincides, the better is the understanding of the communication.  In a parallel experiment, when stories are listened to with no face-to-face communication, there is no such mirroring of brain activity.

Effectively there is a “coupling” of the brains, although the experimenters do not yet know how much of the mirroring is due to non-verbal cues.  The research does offer an intriguing insight into the positive power of empathy.  Inspector Insight has written about both the positive impact of empathy on Homo Empathicus and the negative impact of lack of empathy in the Lucifer effect.  In a fascinating but short film on the Guardian website you can enjoy these competing views of man with commentary from Steven Pinker, Frans de Waal and Richard Wrangham.  The film is called The Bipolar Ape, and the link is below.

The Bipolar Ape from

I prefer to see the positive power of empathy, and I’ll be losing myself again at the movies this weekend.

REFERENCES Jonah Lehrer on the neuroscience of Inception

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi R. Douglas Fields on How we share minds

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