Applying science to art

Over at Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel's hosting a discussion on who should be on a hypothetical Mount Rushmore of science. There's a fairly broad consensus that Darwin, Einstein, and Newton make the cut, but rather heated debate on who should be the fourth member.

i-31d7f09c43701089c46d90ce6bdfc753-moonraker.jpgMany of Chad's readers suggest Sigmund Freud. I found that surprising, since the field of psychology has largely moved away from the work of Freud. Freud is still very influential in literary and cultural studies, but not so much in the world of science. Indeed, one of Freud's lasting influences was the attempt to undertake a rational analysis of literature; to analyze the motivations of characters as if they were real people (and vice versa).

Though Freud's analysis of the human mind has little basis in science, scientists do still attempt to understand literature and other forms of art, but their methods have changed considerably. For one thing, researchers acknowledge that "high art" is perhaps too nuanced to withstand scientific analysis, and so have focused on simpler works. Instead of Oedipus Rex, think Moonraker.

Joseph Magliano, Holly Taylor, and Hyun-Jeong Joyce Kim were interested in how viewers and readers keep track of multiple characters' goals over the course of a narrative. It's a complex problem, and the demands of keeping track of many characters, even in a relatively simple movie, should quickly overwhelm the capacity of working memory. Viewers and readers must then decide which characters to follow more closely. But how do they make the decision? Do they focus solely on the protagonist? What about antagonists? Are they ignored? Or does the specific narrative matter?

Magliano's team asked volunteers to watch either Moonraker or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, pausing and noting the time whenever they thought the circumstances in the movie had changed. The particular schlocky sci-fi / adventure movies chosen for analysis was deliberate, for the antagonists in each film were different. In Moonraker James Bond faces a series of different antagonists, each one occupying a limited number of scenes. The Wrath of Khan, by contrast, is a battle between a single protagonist -- Kirk -- and one adversary, Khan.

So was pausing behavior different in the two movies? Yes, in Moonraker participants paused mainly at events initiated by the protagonist, whereas in The Wrath of Khan, they paused equally at events initiated by the protagonist and the antagonist, suggesting they were paying more attention to the goals of the antagonist when he had a larger role in the film. A separate analysis of the films showed that protagonists and antagonists initiated a similar number of events in each, so it appears that viewers simply weren't paying as as much attention to the antagonists in the Bond film.

In a second experiment, a new set of viewers again watched either Moonraker or Khan, but this time the researchers paused the films at predetermined points and asked viewers to write down "whatever comes to mind" about the movie. Again, the Moonraker viewers wrote nearly twice as much about the protagonist, while the Khan viewers wrote equally about the protagonist and the antagonist.

Magliano et al. argue that this shows that viewers are attending primarily to the most prominent characters as they watch a movie, not the prominence of the action in a particular scene. Viewers will monitor the goals of more than one character, but only to the extent that the character plays an important role throughout the film.

The study authors acknowledge that the fact that they are studying only two films may mean their results aren't generalizable over movies in general, but they do point out that this is the first study of its kind. In the future, they recommend that experimenters produce their own films, so that they can systematically vary the role and number of antagonists to see how viewers attend to additional characters in a film.

Magliano, J.P., Taylor, H.A., & Kim, H.J.J. (2005). When goals collide: Monitoring the goals of multiple characters. Memory & Cognition, 33(8), 1357-1367.

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As a social scientist, I feel having Freud on the Mount Rushmore of Science would be ridiculous, since he was wrong on just about everything. As for what he got right, Harold Bloom points out that 90 percent was anticipated by Shakespeare. We might as well put Shakespeare alongside Newton, Darwin, and Einstein.

How about adding Herbert A. Simon, psychologist and Nobel Prize winner who spurred the science of cognitive psychology.

If the 4th guy is going to be a psychologist, at least pick one that wasn't wrong about nearly everything... how about William James or Helmholtz?