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David Pincus

David Pincus Ph.D.

And the Oscar Goes to...Our Brains?

And the Oscar Goes to...Our Brains?

Fractals fractals everywhere, it really makes you think. Yet one more place where fractal patterns have turned up appears to be within the structure of Hollywood films - and just in time for the Oscars!

In the February 5 issue of the journal Psychological Science (published by The Association for Psychological Science), Researchers James E. Cutting, Jordan E. DeLong, from Cornell University, and Christine E. Nothelfer, from The University of California at Berkeley, have published convincing evidence to that effect.

As a reminder to readers of “The Chaotic Life,” fractals are branchlike patterns that tend to appear across the various domains of the natural world. Fractals are interesting because they describe common growth processes involving simple rules (i.e., grow, then branch, grow then branch…); because they are a hallmark of self-organizing dynamics (characterized by the complex interplay of numerous component systems which ironically leads to global order); and because they exert a pull on on peoples creative and mystical imaginations, while remaining mathematically grounded and empirically verifiable.

They are of course also ubiquitous, showing up all around us and within us, from the branchlike patterns underlying the structure of the cosmos, the internet, plants, rivers and fault lines – to the branches of our neuronal structures, our cardiovascular system, our self-concepts and our interpersonal relationships. This newest example of fractal patterns underlying the structures of films is likely to draw a lot of attention within the psychological research communities, and well as being interesting to the general moviegoing public.

Skipping over the interesting technical details of the article, what the researchers found was that the narrative structure of films tend to be built from exponentially more short shots compared to long shots (shots meaning that that the viewpoint is from a particular camera or upon a particular object). This indicates a fractal structure just as plants have exponentially more small branches compared to large ones. Furthermore, this fractal nature underlying the structure in films has been increasing over time – resembling an idealized fractal structure over the past 70 years, the time span across which films were assessed. Moreover, the branchlike structures of cut lengths was observed across a variety of directors and film genres, with more than 150 films analyzed from action films to romantic comedies. As such, the result is not based in any individuals intentions. Rather, there must be some pull toward this pattern of film-making – it is an “emergent process.”

The authors suggest that these results may signify an evolution within film, whereby the narrative structure has increasingly moved closer and closer to more natural forms of perception as well as higher level human thought. For example, we tend to scan our environments in fractal eye movements during purposeful activity (i.e., many small movements and few large ones). They also suggest that this style of narrative may be more engaging of the attention of movie-goers. It is interesting to note, however, that the degree to which films were fractal did not predict how good they were (based on IMBD ratings). It seems it takes a lot more to make a good film than just a natural structure, which grabs and holds our brains for a couple of hours. Perhaps that explains why I have watched so many bad movies from start to finish, and why so many supposedly great films have put me to sleep?


About the Author

David Pincus

David Pincus is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University in Orange, CA.


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