Avatar’s mind games

[Via The Frontal Cortex]

I loved Avatar. Sure, I chuckled at the schmaltzy dialogue and found the neon color scheme a little garish and could have done without all the pantheistic moralism…But the movie was still mesmerizing. For 150 minutes, I vanished into the screen, utterly absorbed in the stereoscopic world unfolding before me. I was lost in Pandora, transfixed by a perfectly predictable melodrama.

The modernist critic Clement Greenberg argued that art should be evaluated on its adherence to the “specificity of the medium”. Painting, for instance, is defined by its abstract flatness, which meant that artists should no longer try to pretend that what they convey is real. While centuries of “realist” artists tried to escape the flatness with elaborate technical tricks, Greenberg argued that the flatness wasn’t an obstacle or hurdle: it was merely an essential element of painting. This led Greenberg to become an advocate for people like Jackson Pollock, who celebrated the 2-D un-reality of their art form.

The point, though, is that every art is defined by its medium. The reason I’ve referenced Greenberg in the context of Avatar – and please pardon the pretentiousness of the above paragraph – is that I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.

First, a little neuroscience. Consider this experiment, led by Uri Hasson and Rafael Malach at Hebrew University. The experiment was simple: they showed subjects a vintage Clint Eastwood movie (“The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”) and watched what happened to the cortex in a scanner. To make a long story short, the scientists found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, which was virtually universal. (The title of the study is “Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natural Vision”.) In particular, people showed a remarkable level of similarity when it came to the activation of areas including the visual cortex (no surprise there), fusiform gyrus (it was turned on when the camera zoomed in on a face), areas related to the processing of touch (they were activated during scenes involving physical contact) and so on. Here’s the nut graf from the paper:

This strong intersubject correlation shows that, despite the completely free viewing of dynamical, complex scenes, individual brains “tick together” in synchronized spatiotemporal patterns when exposed to the same visual environment.


Here are some nice neurological explanations for the immersive aspects of Avatar that I wrote about before. I wonder if different parts of the brain light up depending on whether you see it in 2D or 3D.

Because I certainly thought the 3D presentation ‘fooled’ my brain into believing it was seeing reality. My memories of the movie seem much more vivid than for a regular movie. CLoser to what are memories of real life and not just a movie.

I guess Avatar is just another step along the way to a medium which we are completely unable to separate from real life. That will sure be fun when it happens.

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