Culture Magazine

Narrative Order and Attention

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
The Power of the Picture: How Narrative Film Captures Attention and Disrupts Goal Pursuit Anna-Lisa Cohen, Elliot Shavalian, Moshe Rube.
Published: December 10, 2015DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0144493
Narrative transportation is described as a state of detachment that arises when one becomes immersed in the narrative of a story. Participants viewed either an intact version of an engaging 20 min film, “Bang You’re Dead!,” (1961) by Alfred Hitchcock (contiguous condition), or a version of the same film with scenes presented out of order (noncontiguous condition). In this latter condition, the individual scenes were intact but were presented out of chronological order. Participants were told a cover story that we were interested in the amount of gun violence depicted in films. Both groups were given the goal to remember to lift their hand every time they heard the word “gun” spoken during the film. Results revealed that participants were significantly less likely to remember to execute their goal in the contiguous condition, presumably because this narrative transported viewers’ attention and thereby “hijacked” processing resources away from internal goals.
The power of stories to transport the audience represents a fundamental part of human experience. Gerrig [1] was the first to coin the term narrative transportation in the context of written literature. Narrative transportation occurs when an individual experiences the feeling of entering the world evoked by a narrative because of empathy for story characters and imagination of the story plot [2]. It is described as a state of detachment from the world, as though one is being carried away by the story. Much has been written in film literature about how techniques of cinema function to engage the viewer. Only quite recently [3] have scientists considered cinema as a topic for empirical investigation. Researchers describe narrative transportation as a state of simulation [4]. For example, they suggest that readers of novels, filmgoers, and theatergoers all undergo a simulation of events when they experience what feels like genuine sorrow when a beloved hero dies, despite the fact that events depicted in the narrative are not real.
Not all stories are equivalent in their ability to transport the reader or viewer. For example, researchers have explored the extent to which brain activity differs across participants during film viewing and found that films varied substantially in their ability to engage the viewer [5]. Participants viewed films while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Intersubject correlation (ISC) measures the similarities in brain activity across viewers. Movies with a high ISC are highly engaging and trigger similar emotional and cognitive responses from viewers leading to higher intersubject synchronization. Results of this study revealed especially high levels of inter-subject correlations in certain films (e.g., a film by Alfred Hitchcock) compared to others [5]. These results provided neuroscientific evidence for Hitchcock’s reputed ability to artfully engage and control viewers’ attention. As Shimamura and colleagues observed, when filmmakers are successful they are able to guide the viewers’ attention to points in a scene [6]. Work by other researchers [7] showed consistency in gaze patterns in individuals while they watched clips of feature films. At certain points during film viewing, eyetracking data showed that virtually all participants were fixated at the same point on the screen at the same time. This phenomenon of gaze attraction has been termed attentional synchrony [8]. Results from eyetracking and fMRI studies show how narrative films can guide our attention so effectively that virtually everyone in the theater is attuned to the same perceptual features [6].
The experience of narrative transportation is similar to other engaging experiences such as absorption [9] and flow [10]. However, there are subtle but critical differences between narrative transportation and these other experiences [2]. For example, absorption refers to a dispositional trait that can be low or high in individuals and describes a general tendency to become immersed in experiences such as fantasy and mental imagery. Transportation, by contrast, is an engaging experience that is temporary and occurs only in response to a story narrative. Flow is a more general construct in which an individual experiences complete and total focus on a specific activity. Narrative transportation involves empathy with story characters and mental imagery, which do not necessarily occur in flow experiences [2].
A consumer of these narrative experiences constructs a mental model by incorporating information from the narrative along with knowledge that he or she already possesses from personal experience [11]. The concept of mental models [12] is similar to situation models [13] [14] which is the term used in the reading comprehension literature. A situation model refers to the mental representation that a reader constructs of the events described in a narrative. This idea of narrative processing places the audience member as an active participant because he/she is dynamically creating the story as the narrative unfolds [15] [1]. Research shows that as we construct situation models we infer causality and the goals of the protagonist [14]. Thus, if a protagonist has a goal that has not yet been accomplished, that goal is more accessible to the reader than a goal that was just accomplished by the protagonist. In line with this prediction, goals yet to be accomplished by the protagonist were recognized more quickly than goals that were just accomplished [16]. One can think of suspense in films as situations in which the goal of a protagonist takes on a more heightened value. That is, it may be that suspense heightens the importance of a perceived goal. Indeed, Bezdek and colleagues [17] tested the hypothesis that, in moments when suspense increases, narrative transportation will produce a changing pattern of activity in brain regions involved in early visual processing. They used fMRI to show that spatially peripheral stimuli received suppressed early visual processing when suspense increased in narrative film scenes. Participants viewed film excerpts that incorporated high suspense scenes while checkerboards flashed continuously in the visual periphery. Results supported their hypothesis that in moments of increased threats to characters, there was a corresponding increase in activity to central visual regions and suppression of activity in peripheral visual regions [17].
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The Atlantic reports on this research.

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