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Neurocinematics: Your Brain on Film

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"I like to watch people's brains while they're watching movies," admits Pia Tikka, a filmmaker, researcher and scholar visiting Los Angeles this fall from Finland. She goes on to explain her growing fascination with brain imaging techniques that allow her to study how different kinds of images affect viewers. Together with neuroscientists in a research project called aivoAALTO at Aalto University, Helsinki, she is exploring the impact of major film projects such as Crash, experimental films from the history of the avant-garde, such as Maya Deren's At Land, and, in the near future, animated films.

"Filmmaking and brain research are meeting," Tikka continues, noting that the emerging field is known as "neurocinematics," a term coined by Uri Hasson in a 2008 essay titled "Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film," which considers films and their ability to control or affect the mind. In describing her new direction in filmmaking, Tikka says that her overall goals are "to provide new knowledge of the human mind, to develop hybrid methods of research, and to enhance the interaction between the arts and sciences." Tikka joins a growing group of artists interested in the nexus of art and science, and she is curious to see if artists, like scientists and researchers, can produce new kinds of knowledge.

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Tikka's work expands as well to include a new form of filmmaking that she calls "enactive cinema," in which a film is viewed within a gallery space with multiple projections, each of which is controlled based on the physical responses of viewers, who are connected to sensors that capture physiological data, such as heart-rate and skin responsiveness. This data in turn influences the sequences of the clips that play onscreen. Tikka presented an example of enactive cinema at ISEA 2006 with a project titled Obsession, and has written about her work in a book of the same title, available here.

Tikka works closely with Mauri Kaipainen, a professor of media and technology at Sweden's Sördetörn University whose background is in cognitive science, musicology and cinema and who is also visiting LA this fall. His work centers on creating tools to allow for a pluralism of perspectives in storytelling, in a sense mapping the spatial clusters of the brain onto the possible spatial correlates of storytelling.

"I am interested in issues of knowing, as well as feeling, being and experience," Kaipainen explains. "My interest in the brain and the physical implementation of the mind is in the construction of meaning from the bottom up rather than from the top down," he continues. Kaipainen applies this interest to projects that rethink films not as linear experiences controlled by single artists but as media environments; he hopes to create spaces in which, as he says, "people construct meaning and organize ideas socially." He explains that while traditional media was centered on the director or writer, today's media facilitates participation and collaboration. How, then, do we make this part of the cinematic experience? "Through generative narratives, navigable story worlds and recombinant poetics," he suggests, pointing to existing work in the field by thinkers as varied as Janet Murray and Bill Seaman. Kaipainen is working on a tool to help create this kind of cinematic experience, and will be experimenting with it throughout the fall at USC.

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