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'The Artist': This is your brain on silent films

December 6, 2011 |  1:43 pm


If moviegoers find the sensory experience of watching the new silent film "The Artist" dramatically different from taking in the average 3-D blockbuster, it's not just in their heads--audiences are actually using the auditory parts of their brains to create their own soundtracks.

"If we were able to record your brain while you watch a silent movie, we would see your auditory cortex activate, even though there’s not a single sound that impacts your eardrum," said Kaspar Meyer, research assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California's Brain and Creativity Institute. "There’s a creative process involved. The brain is filling in auditory information by drawing on memories."

Meyer is the lead author of a 2010 study that ran functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on the brains of people who were watching silent video clips of images such as a barking dog and a buzzing chainsaw. Though the clips were silent, the researchers found that the subjects' auditory cortices were activated, in all likelihood because they created their own sounds in their minds.

"You do not have to have seen that exact image of the dog before, but the internal repertoire that you have in your mind of barking dogs will be used to generate a sound that approximates the image, and that sound will be replayed, so to say, in the auditory part of the brain," Meyer said.

"The Artist," a melodrama about a silent film star (Jean Dujardin) who struggles to transition to the era of talkies, calls on audiences to conjure their own sounds like the yap of a Jack Russell terrier, the tap of a dance shoe and the clack of a film set clapperboard. Though the film is accompanied by a score from composer Ludovic Bource, it has only two words of dialogue.

The movie is in its second week of a limited release in New York City and Los Angeles and is riding a wave of Oscar buzz. How "The Artist" fares as its distributor, the Weinstein Co., expands the film to more theaters over coming weeks, will depend in part on moviegoers' willingness to play such an active role at the cinema.

"You as an audience, you do the dialogues, you do the voices, you imagine things, the sound of the street, you really take part in the storytelling process," said "The Artist's" French director, Michel Hazanavicius. "That makes the story very close by you because you ... do it with your own imagination."

Ironically, according to Meyer, a low-tech film like "The Artist" may actually engender a more complex creative process in the brain than its 3-D, surround-sound competition.

"The movie industry is moving in an ever more sophisticated way of presenting visual images," Meyer said. "One of the reasons they’re doing that is they’re trying to get closer to reality. It seems special to go from 2-D to 3-D, but actually we’re simply approaching what is normal, how we perceive reality in everyday life. By contrast, when you go from providing visual and auditory information together to just presenting visual information, you’re actually generating a more unique experience for the brain, although this may be considered a more rudimentary form of filmmaking."


Buzz is growing over silent film

Los Angeles locales star in silent film 'The Artist'

 --Rebecca Keegan


Photo: Jean Dujardin as George Valentin in "The Artist." Credit: Peter Iovino/The Weinstein Co.