The Kuleshov Effect, discovered nearly a century ago by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, posits that the context in which we see an image of an actor’s face will determine the emotion the face portrays. For example, take a look at this short little clip I made (QuickTime required). First you’ll see a gray screen, then a photo, then a second gray screen, and another photo of a face, taken just after that person looked at the first photo:
What emotion would you say characterizes the second face? Is it neutral, subtly happy, or subtly sad?
Kuleshov’s work suggests that most viewers will see that second face as happier in the context of the happy photo preceding it, compared to if they had seen it on its own. If the identical photo had been preceded by a negative image such as an aggressive dog, people would rate it more negatively.
Research during the 1980s and 1990s confirmed the effect, but it has been exploited by filmmakers countless times during the intervening decades — the neutral face of a heroine is seen as sad if she’s just witnessed her lover’s death, but happy if she’s anticipating his arrival on the next train.
Most recently, a team led by Dean Mobbs replicated the Kuleshov Effect while viewers’ brain activity was monitored via fMRI. Mobbs’ team showed movies similar to the example above to 14 volunteers. Sometimes the first (context) image was neutral, sometimes it was positive (happy), and sometimes negative (fearful). While the fMRI monitored brain activity, viewers rated the second (neutral) image as positive or negative. This chart shows the results:
The emotion of the neutral face was rated as significantly more positive in a positive context than in a neutral or negative context. The reverse occurred for a negative context. The two brain scans above show one slice of brain activity while viewing the identical face in a positive and negative context. As you can see, there was significantly more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in the negative context than in the positive context. This makes sense, since the ACC has been found to play a role in emotional appraisals.
Mobbs et al. found differences in a variety of brain regions, all while the viewers were rating the identical face. The team also asked viewers to rate faces that showed subtly positive or negative expressions, and again found that context influenced both the ratings and brain activity.
Mobbs and his colleagues argue that this research shows that there is a neurobiological basis for the Kuleshov Effect.
Mobbs, D., Weiskopf, N., Lau, H.C., Featherstone, E., Dolan, R.J., & Frith, C.D. (2006). The Kuleshov Effect: The influence of contextual framing on emotional attributions. SCAN, 1, 95-106.