There’s a scene near the end of Black Swan, where Nina finally loses her grip on reality. Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is the protagonist of this 2010 psychological thriller, a ballerina stressed to the breaking point by competing with another dancer for a starring role. She begins to hallucinate black feathers poking through her skin, a sign she’s becoming the part she’s meant to play.
When people watch this scene, their brain activity bears some resemblance to a pattern that’s been observed in people with schizophrenia, said Talma Hendler, a neuroscientist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, said at a recent event here sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“My suggestion to you is that as Nina is getting crazier and crazier, the audience experiences something like schizophrenia,” Hendler said.
Darren Aronofsky, who directed Black Swan, was onstage with Hendler, and he took this as a compliment. Aronofsky has a remarkable knack for putting his audience in the mindset of mentally unstable and anguished characters (recall the tortured mathematician in Pi, or Micky Rourke’s battered wrestler, desperate for a comeback in The Wrestler).
Asked if he was alarmed by the possibility of giving his audience a temporary taste of psychosis, Aronofsky responded, “I’d be thrilled.”
Hendler studies the neural correlates of human emotions and their role in mental illness. Movies, she says, are a useful way to study how emotions fluctuate in real time—and what’s going on in the brain as that happens.
Recently, her team has been investigating networks in the brain that appear to have a role in empathy. She’s found evidence for two types of empathy, each tied to a different network of brain regions. One type she calls mental empathy, which requires you to mentally step outside yourself and think about what another person is thinking or experiencing. The other type she calls embodied empathy; this is the more visceral in-the-moment empathy you might feel when you see someone get punched in the guts.
At the Academy event she presented fMRI brain scan data her team collected as subjects watched several emotional movie clips. One clip was from the 1998 drama, The Stepmom, in which Susan Sarandon plays a divorced woman who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In this scene, she’s talking to her son, telling him she’ll always be looking out for him (you know, from Heaven, because she’s going to die soon—it’s very sad).
Hendler played this clip along with a corresponding video that showed how subjects’ brain activity was changing. This scene primarily engaged the mental empathy network, Hendler said, and on the screen blue dots appeared, representing parts of the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortex that make up this network. Blue lines connecting the blue dots, Hendler said, indicate that activity in these regions is coordinated, essentially that parts of this network are talking to each other a lot during the scene.
In another emotional moment in this scene from The Stepmom, the son tells his mother how much he loves her and she hugs him. It’s more touchy-feely, less cerebral. And there was a difference in the subjects’ brains too. The blue dots had faded and a network of green dots and lines had become conspicuous—evidence, Hendler says, that the embodied empathy network contributed more to the emotions subjects felt during this scene.
Based on experiments in which people rate their own emotional state as they watch movie clips, Hendler concludes that both types of empathy can have a powerful influence on what people actually experience.
In the scene from Black Swan, despite Nina’s viscerally disturbing actions, it’s the blue (mental empathy) network that dominates, with the green (embodied empathy) network flickering to life only occasionally, as when Nina pulls a feather from her back (as shown in the top image). It’s this pattern—relying more heavily on the mental empathy network even in the face of a visceral experience—that Hendler has seen in schizophrenia patients. It’s as if they’re having to think through the emotional impact of situations that other people grasp more intuitively and automatically, she said.
Here’s where things get a little tricky though. The division of labor among different brain regions is never totally neat and clean—each region has multiple jobs and scientists don’t necessarily know what all of them are. That makes it difficult to say with a high degree of confidence what a given region or network is doing whenever it lights up in an fMRI scan.
In fact, Aronofsky suggested an alternative interpretation: Maybe the audience is using their mental empathy network more during that scene simply because they’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on. “The audience is going ‘What’s happening? Is she really transforming into a swan?’ and they’re slowly discovering that we’re really going to go for it,” Aronofsky said.
Despite that fact that his frequent writing partner and co-producer, Ari Handel has a PhD in neuroscience, Aronofsky says they don’t talk about brains as they’re planning scenes. They do, however, think a lot about how to manipulate the audience’s emotions. “We’re always thinking about how to get into an emotional state, moment by moment, and how to bring as much of the audience along with us,” Aronofsky said. For example, in Requiem for a Dream, which follows four people unraveled by addiction, Aronofsky said one strategy he used was to shift from wide shots at the beginning of the movie to tighter shots as it progressed to convey an increasingly subjective sense of what the characters were experiencing.
“There’s always a theory of where the camera is and why it’s there,” Aronofsky said.