There's no popcorn sold in this movie theater. The screen is tiny, the seating awkward. In fact, I'm lying on my back inside a narrow tube, with maybe two inches of wiggle room on all sides. But more unnerving than my accommodations is the serial-killer flick projected on the screen a few inches above my face. There's a woman tied to a chair in a dingy basement, struggling as a masked man sneaks up from behind and slowly stabs her to death. The scene is terrifying, but, according to the people who put me in this tube, perhaps not terrifying enough.
The tube is a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI), a machine that produces real-time images of brain activity, usually for medical purposes. This particular device belongs to the San Diego neuromarketing firm MindSign, which for the past three years has used it to help Hollywood craft better movie trailers based on peoples' neural responses to what they see onscreen.
The young field of neuromarketing is a controversial one. For every study that shows that a particular fMRI signal indicates a person's preference among competing sodas or politicians, another study debunks it. But MindSign's founders say that the technology is great for making exciting movie trailers. The average movie-trailer shot lasts one to two seconds, which happens to be the same rate at which an fMRI scans for brain activity. "It's a perfect combination," says MindSign's president, Devin Hubbard.
"By looking at the sum total of brain reaction from areas like the amygdala, for fear, and Brodmann's area 10, for executive function and memory, we can see if a trailer is producing strong emotional engagement," says Martin Lindstrom, a neuromarketing expert and the author of Buyology, an examination of the subject.
But the reason I'm in this tube, watching this gruesome murder, is that MindSign and a few movie producers now think that the technology has a future as a tool for editing films. And I am their guinea pig.
The Focus Group That Can't Lie
Late last year, Peter Katz, an independent film producer, saw a 60 Minutes story on neuromarketing and wondered what fMRI scans could tell him about his new horror movie, Pop Skull. He read about MindSign on Wikipedia and approached Hubbard. What makes fMRI particularly well-suited for horror, Hubbard and Katz argue, is a part of the brain called the amygdala, which scientists have identified as being responsible for handling primal reactions, particularly fear. If an fMRI scan shows activity in the amygdala, there's reason to infer that the person is scared. Scan enough brains and average the results, and you could learn which buttons to push to increase the amygdala's response.
Following these guidelines, the results from Katz and Hubbard's early tests were surprising. A shot of a hand creeping along a wall incited a greater amygdala response than a scene involving the villain jumping out of the bushes—the opposite of what standard moviemaking rules would predict.
A few months later, Katz described his experiment to the brothers Drew and John Dowdle, the directors behind the zombie hit Quarantine and the forthcoming M. Night Shyamalan–produced thriller Devil. Intrigued, the Dowdles lent Katz one scene from their highly anticipated serial-killer tale, The Poughkeepsie Tapes. I and five other subjects watched this scene inside MindSign's fMRI to find out if our resulting brain scans could provide enough information to re-edit the scene into a more compelling experience.