I loved Avatar. Sure, I chuckled at the schmaltzy dialogue and found the neon color scheme a little garish and could have done without all the pantheistic moralism...But the movie was still mesmerizing. For 150 minutes, I vanished into the screen, utterly absorbed in the stereoscopic world unfolding before me. I was lost in Pandora, transfixed by a perfectly predictable melodrama.
The modernist critic Clement Greenberg argued that art should be evaluated on its adherence to the "specificity of the medium". Painting, for instance, is defined by its abstract flatness, which meant that artists should no longer try to pretend that what they convey is real. While centuries of "realist" artists tried to escape the flatness with elaborate technical tricks, Greenberg argued that the flatness wasn't an obstacle or hurdle: it was merely an essential element of painting. This led Greenberg to become an advocate for people like Jackson Pollock, who celebrated the 2-D un-reality of their art form.
The point, though, is that every art is defined by its medium. The reason I've referenced Greenberg in the context of Avatar - and please pardon the pretentiousness of the above paragraph - is that I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.
First, a little neuroscience. Consider this experiment, led by Uri Hasson and Rafael Malach at Hebrew University. The experiment was simple: they showed subjects a vintage Clint Eastwood movie ("The Good, The Bad and the Ugly") and watched what happened to the cortex in a scanner. To make a long story short, the scientists found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, which was virtually universal. (The title of the study is "Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natural Vision".) In particular, people showed a remarkable level of similarity when it came to the activation of areas including the visual cortex (no surprise there), fusiform gyrus (it was turned on when the camera zoomed in on a face), areas related to the processing of touch (they were activated during scenes involving physical contact) and so on. Here's the nut graf from the paper:
This strong intersubject correlation shows that, despite the completely free viewing of dynamical, complex scenes, individual brains "tick together" in synchronized spatiotemporal patterns when exposed to the same visual environment.
But it's also worth pointing out which brain areas didn't "tick together" in the movie theater. The most notable of these "non-synchronous" regions is the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with logic, deliberative analysis, and self-awareness. (It carries a hefty computational burden.) Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that, when we're engaged in intense "sensorimotor processing" - and nothing is more intense than staring at a massive screen with Dolby surround sound while wearing 3-D glasses - we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such "inactivation" allows us to lose ourself in the movie:
Our results show a clear segregation between regions engaged during self-related introspective processes and cortical regions involved in sensorimotor processing. Furthermore, self-related regions were inhibited during sensorimotor processing. Thus, the common idiom ''losing yourself in the act'' receives here a clear neurophysiological underpinnings.
What these experiments reveal is the essential mental process of movie-watching. (Other research has also emphasized the ability of stories to blur the difference between fiction and reality.) This doesn't mean that every movie needs to be an action packed spectacle, just as Greenberg was wrong to suggest that every painting should imitate Pollock. But I think it helps reveal why Avatar is such a success. At its core, movies are about dissolution: we forget about ourselves and become one with the giant projected characters on the screen. In other words, they become our temporary avatars, so that we're inseparable from their story. (This is one of the reasons why the Avatar plot is so effective: it's really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.*) And for a mind that's so relentlessly self-aware, I'd argue that 100 minutes of self-forgetting (as indicated by a quieting of the prefrontal cortex) is a pretty nice cognitive vacation. And Avatar, through a variety of technical mechanisms - from the astonishing special effects to the straightforward story to the use of 3-D imagery - manages to induce those "synchronized spatiotemporal patterns" to an unprecedented degree. That is what the movies are all about, and that is what Avatar delivers.
*And just because I've already gone off the deep end of pretentiousness, I thought I though should mention the parable that Avatar made me think of. I found the quote via Borges, but it's from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi:
Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi
What a great experiment! In my case, shutting off the logic areas makes for a much better experience, because my "inner critic" can't put her two cents in!!
I'm curious to see how non-narrative cinema effects the brain. If we release ourselves from the prefrontal cortex in order to mentally embody the activity on screen, what happens when there is no humanoid avatar? If I am watching Brakhage's Moth Light does my brain fire in the same manner?
And to a lesser extents, what happens in the brain when watching an unconventional narrative, like Pulp Fiction. Are we using our logic and reasoning to work out the time line or is that an illusion?
as usual, awesome article there, Mr. Lehrer
I wrote in my blog about Avatar as an update to the "Brain in a Vat" gedankenexperiment, inspired by Dan Dennett's "Where Am I?" essay. The movie is, in that matter, vague (if not contradictory). There's no coherent way to describe the ontology of the mental on there... there could be a lot of potential to get kids insterested in philosophy of mind, though.
The article is here (sorry, but it is in spanish, and google translations just doesn't cut it)
Suspension of disbelief has been written about for as long as I can remember. It's interesting to see which areas of the brain are activated in the process, but less interesting if the psychological or philosophical aspects of the process are given secondary billing.
Special effects add to suspension of disbelief as much as do special circumstances. A fantasy world made exceedingly real overcomes the banality of the failure of its imaginary inhabitants to have acquired a commensurate form of wisdom.
Considering this, the mind-meld effect you are describing is especially scary. Especially when audiences are enjoying the film so much that the exoticized stereotypes are unconsciously reinforced -- they're glossed over or not mentioned at all in many of the movie's positive write-ups.
I admit that I haven't seen the movie... but with so many conflicting reviews, I'm going to have to.
Exactly what I was thinking after I saw the movie, but in a well put together article with the science to back it up! Great read.
The ability of a medium such as film to grab hold of our attention and emotions so effectively is fascinating, but also frightening. It's undeniable that unconsciously our decision making processes are altered by the emotion wrenching, attention grabbing, and entertaining movies/TV shows. These attention grabbing properties allow memories and ideas from the movie to become easily etched into ones mind. And with constant promotion of a movie it's hard not to reinforce these new memories through retrieval. Avatar is a great example of this.
OK, I give up. Tickets purchased online for the 4:20 show tomorrow at the Imax at the Seattle Center. The mind-effects feared by some here are not nearly as scary that. As adults we have well-developed identities. At 65 I'm sure any new values or significant beliefs I am introduced to will be easily tossed aside if they don't fit well with what I already believe to be true about the world and how to survive in it. It would take a pretty compelling story line to make a dent in it. I hear the story line for Avatar is almost non-existent. For the kids now, that's another story.
Saw it at the same place! It was great. I agree that the older we get the more concrete our knowledge and beliefs are, and the more control we have over ourselves, but it's just a thought, perhaps unconsciously we can be affected.
Viewing movies/TV shows has been shown to give similar effect to actual human interaction, because you're "interacting" with and following along emotionally/time-line plot wise with the characters. Creating an artificial relationship.
Just a few posts ago John talked about the link between obesity/smoking and friend-networks. If a friend gains weight the weight gain moves out in a wave through the network of friends. This wave of influence is below the level of consciousness. In theory, movies can have this same influence in different ways (weight only being an example), except on a much larger network of movie goers.
'Bout time you weighed in on this! I look forward to reading your thoughts offline!
What startled me about Avatar was on the one hand sitting there picking all the button presses and on the other leaving the cinema literally breathless, and I wasn't the only one. I suspect the 3D, which was so cleverly used and which became "transparent" after a few minutes, contributed a significant degree to the arousal.
Hm. This is one to argue about over a beer; may the time come yet! But I think I want to play the grump on this one and argue that in Avatar, which I saw last night, Cameron has not deftly realized the potential of his medium; he has deftly exploited its crudest powers of visual seduction while leaving its full potential untapped.
The crudest aspect of a medium is not necessary its most important or elemental. Film gives a rich sense of visual reality; add a bit of story (no one would have sat through a random 150-minute tour of that planet), and you can get people to sit back and unthinkingly go with the story. The visual immersion is unique to film, perhaps, but the shutting down of the prefrontal cortex surely isn't -- you'd surely get the same thing if you scanned people who were listening with eyes closed to a good yarn.
So perhaps Cameron has a) fully immersed us visually and b) seduced us into shutting off our PFCs (as love has been found to do in other studies). But by doing so he has hardly fully realized film's potential. For if he has, how do we explain the far more powerful and profound effects of movies that are every bit as immersive visually while being far more moving emotionally and intellectually -- movies that grip you even more thoroughly than Avatar does while you're watching them, but leave you moved and thinking for days afterwards?
Three such movies jump readily to mind: Ice Storm; The Incredible Lightness of Being; and The Hours. (Sorry about this last one, Jonah, I know it border on cheating to bring Woolf into the mix.) All three are as immersive visually as Avatar is, and all three make you utterly forget your own life -- for me, anyway, far more completely than Avatar did. But all three left me, anyway, far more deeply moved afterwards than Avatar did -- deeply shaken, and thinking for days afterward. They bring waves of emotion even recalled years later.
Why? Because at some level these movies, even while immersing us so completely, challenge rather than indulge our existing systems and tangles of ideas and emotions. They didn't make us self-conscious or plan or think-consciously-in-a-PFC-sort-of-way; but they do engage in a richer way (much as good books do) the places in our heads where ideas and emotions meet. Their engagement is rich whether or not you're familiar with some of the ideas and history they draw on directly (political history in Lightness, Mrs. Dalloway and the life of V. Woolf in The Hours) -- but even richer to the extent you are familiar with some of that material.
These movies draw on these various ideas and sources and emotions using the same basic tools that Cameroin uses, a mix of visual, filmic, and storytelling conventions and structures. They are every bit as filmic as his, and rely no more heavily on "extra-filmic" elements (that is, those that Greenberg, whom I actually think was wrong about painting's limitations, would consider out-of-medium) than Cameron did. But they are a far more complete realization of the medium. To my eyes, anyway, simply remembering them makes Avatar seem not a deft realization of film, but one that, however beautiful and immersive, is impoverished.
If I had more time I'd find a way to get Borges, Woolf, Eisenstein, and Godard into this. But alas, I must work!
Need... more... unobtainium...
i agree with mr. Dobbs.
even here, talking with my close friends who had seen Avatar, we all came to a similar conclusion as Dobbs points out.
this film is undoubtedly mesmerizing. i was in awe most part of it. Pandora rocks all the way thru, but there's nothing new or deeper as far as the story goes and its main characters are flat - just keep a close eye into the colonel, most of his lines are very caricaturized. he lacks depth as almost all the others.
Cameron hasn't honored the story the same way he did with this film's aesthetics. maybe this wasn't his main goal or proposal, and that's ok - for now. ;)
he and his many crews had developed an amazing universe but we have the feeling that, at the end, they were all mesmerized by these new effects.
that's why i agree with Dobbs when he says Cameron's still experiencing, still stratching the cords - he is definitely unaware of what he had discovered.
and we, film lovers, are (yet) waiting for deep stories to be told. we all want to be touched by a story which opens us.
greetings from Belo Horizonte, Brazil. :)
I believe you when you describe being "lost in" a movie because when I was in grad school, in the UK, I used to see a lot of films. After a particularly good one, I remember walking out of the theater expecting to emerge in my hometown, back in the States, suddenly realizing that I was on the other side of the world. That was the mark of a good film, and a nice "cognitive vacation."
Three years ago (2007) I was browsing Amazon for books similar to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by my childhood hero, Oliver Sacks, and that's how I found Proust was a Neuroscientist and lost myselves in it.
You are this world's greatest artist Jonah );
I never thought I'd feel so giddy, finding someone I wish I could be, like finding my childhood hero for the first time again...
I'd been evangelizing Dr. Sacks to my friends and I'm proud to be doing the same fanboy-screaming for you!!!
Nicely written! I'm glad to see more substantive debate beyond "ew, liberal propaganda!" and "white man's guilt!". I love the meta-implications of watching "Avatar" raptly in a theater, and it's both reassuring and unsettling to know why my brain felt fuzzy in there even as I could feel the gears turning in the background.
Seattle IMAX was very nice to go to - I saw it the second time there and managed to catch more references and devices because I wasn't quite so overwhelmed by the wonder.
I saw it and was visually blown away of course. I was also delighted with the very basic and easy-to-follow good vs evil theme - where unspeakable tyrants with no regard for the beautiful things in life - seem unstoppable in their frenzy to destroy everything decent in the name of greed - with a good dose of gratuitous racism thrown in. But then, the good and virtuous triumph in the end and we are all happy. Hurrah! I am not making fun of it. I love that stuff. One of my favorite writers, Joseph Conrad, was a master but with a level of complexity that was much closer to real life.
I think that's worth noticing. Books with their white pages and ordered black text are much better at intellectual complexity than visually rich mediums - especially when the medium is stretched as close to a virtual reality as Avatar. Books let you put them down and think about what you just read and for me, complex ideas benefit from a few days of slow digestion. 3D Imax hits you like life. Sometimes it's all you can do to sit back and let it roll through you. I offer my great praise and my appreciation that I did not have to try to follow some distractingly clever plot to stay with the story. As Jonah points out, my frontal cortex was pretty much disabled, anyway.
I was a bit disappointed however with the placement of the simple battle between good and evil squarely inside the "noble savage" genre. The story was quite similar to "Dances With Wolves" in that sense. There is some truth to noble-savageism but the notion is far more complex than is usually treated by story tellers (Conrad is a notable exception). Indigenous people like Native Americans were neither savages nor were they so noble and pure of spirit. The tribes spent quite a lot of time and effort warring with each other over territory and resources and sometimes just because they liked war. Like most cultures at war they ambushed, killed and when they could, horribly tortured their captives - just like our European ancestors did before we got "civilized" enough to really get into mass killing at a distance.
My real problem however, is not with the genre; it is with the use of it to deliver partisan ideology. Some of the political messages here were were pretty blatant. The main bad-guy - the mining company's military commander - bore a stark resemblance to Col. Kildare in "Apocalypse Now", directing the horrible massacre of the brown people on the ground from his hi-tech helicopter cabin. All that was missing was Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries". The memory of Rachel Corrie made a cameo appearance in Avatar as a huge D59? armored dozer of the future cleared away the home of the poor and besieged natives on the forest floor - often referred to as "terrorists" by the racist Marine base commander.
It would be difficult for a young and innocent moviegoer not to identify with "terrorists", the good guys, the pure of heart who just want to live peacefully but will defend their land if they have to. It would be easy for them to conclude that those who fight "terrorists" are racists with hi-tech weapons and a mandate from shadowy corporate interests to wipe out the "animals" as the commander sees them. It's the Arab narrative of the ME conflict packaged in a very emotional and compelling audio/visual format.
The final scene as the defeated forces of evil are herded onto the cargo ship for their return to the long-despoiled earth I assume, is how I imagine idealistic young progressives might expect any Jews who remain after the final battle for Palestine - all good noble savage tales must have a final battle - will be humanely sent packing by the Arabs of the region, who now get to return to their peaceful ways.
Such simple fantasies may warm the hearts of middle-class youth who have never had to work too hard or fight for much. But in real life, there are good and bad people in all societies - and some societies are better than others. The better ones - even with all their imperfections - are those that constitutionally respect human rights and install representative governments and independent judiciaries to defend those rights. The bad ones are those that don't and have no intention to. These also seem to be the societies that treat their women and minorities like animals and periodically start genocidal wars against their neighbors or segments of their own population.
In the end, dreamy-eyed stories like Avatar that shallowly associate "the bad" with anything connected to Western Civilization or our values - and "the good" to anyone who opposes us - do more to perpetuate conflict and the persecution of innocent people in the world - and undermine moderate and modernizing forces in those places - than all the lobbies of the Military Industrial Complex put together.
It saddens me to see otherwise very good entertainment put to such an unfortunate use. But Avatar is still well worth seeing.
I'm not among those who think movies can't do complexity, or that complexity is limited to books. Movies can do complexity. It's just hard to get those movies funded. Much the same in books. But because there are far more books published altogether -- and an 'expensive' book (i.e., with a big contract) costs the publisher far less than all but the cheapest movies, we get more complex books than we do complex movies. And for this, thank goodness, and for the efficiency of the humble (or even the proud!) writer. The money Cameron spends to produce a few lush, cliched seconds of footage could keep Jonah and me both writing for a lifetime.
I saw this movie it is really a very nice movie which give us very much entertainment we are enjoying this one it is really a very nice one I am very excited about this one it is really a very nice one.
It was very difficult to immerse my brain in Avatar as I was constantly and repeatedly reminded of previous movies, primarily two animations: Disney's Pocahontas and Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. Avatar so closely and shamelessly plagiarized them that at some point I started a mental bet with the movie that something unexpected would happen next. I kept losing till the end.
In boredom, I also began to look for anything original (ie, not plagiarized) in the movie and failed miserably. Watch a few Miyazaki's movies (eg, Castle in the Sky, Valley of the Wind) and you'll see all the visual goodies, big and small, that have been re-packaged by Avatar.
I think that your review is right on. This is a movie that you watch more for the experience than for the motivation of the characters.
I relate it to my favorite movie of all time - "2001 - A Space Odyssey". I was already out of college when I saw it in a movie theatre. The plot was confusing, the characters undeveloped, but it was such a unique experience for the time that it is still the only movie that I've ever seen three times in a movie theatre. You actually saw spaceships that didn't have obvious strings holding them up in the air!
The plot's surely good enough. A deeper more nuanced plot might have actually diminished the EXPERIENCE.
I've told all my friends to see it as an experience. No one has given me a negative review.
Jun, Just some thoughts I had about your comment. I think in real life our brain constantly makes connections between what we observe and memory content - or what we already know about survival, what we have learned and stored away. It is very useful to know if we are in a situation that is potentially dangerous or not for example. This is like our first line of survival defense in a dangerous world.
Is it possible that Avatar is so visually rich, the screen so large, the surround sound so realistic - that it is closer than most movies to a normal reality state, perceptually - and so the brain, rather than sit back and enjoy the scenery and plot as we normally do in a completely safe movie house - thinks it needs to operate more as if you were experiencing real life - and therefore it is more likely that those past images would keep popping up? i.e. your brain is sensing an unfamiliar high level of realistic perceptions coming in for that setting and is operating with somewhat heightened defenses.
But your brain also recognizes the inside of a movie theater as the place where you are - a kind of place - so as you watch, it provides you with associated images from past similar encounters, i.e. in movie houses.
If there's anything to that theory I think that effect would decrease as you attended more Avatar-like movies.
Nice piece Jonah! That the mind can take in such images and music to the extent we become particpants in the drama, or at least observers, comes as no surprise. My neighbor's mother in the weeks before she died was visited by people her daughter could not see. While one of the visitors was a kindly deceased relative, more often the mother related seeing events and peole from the evening news and her favorite soaps and was quite scared by these visits. Telling her mother she was hallucinating did not stop the visions. A hospice worker suggested more benign TV fare. So the mother left this world with visits from Tiger Woods, and items from children's shows in her mind. If there is a something next, one wonders what that might be?
To comment on the movie itself, from my Buddhist sister:"My take on "Avatar" was that it was a powerful message just as in Tolkein that self interest with no understanding of how the universe works will destroy the host and ultimately its parasitic inhabitants. How wonderful that such a deluded view was broken in time to reverse the destructive end of such delusion on Pandora. May we on earth wake up to our own interconnectedness and interdependence in time. We are a stupid limited evolutionary product at present."
jb says, "We are a stupid limited evolutionary product at present."
Evolution doesn't care about stupid. It only cares about the amount of dna representing our evolving genotype appearing in future generations. In that regard we seem to be nominally successful. Ours is a genotype that produces combative, often warlike social groups of homo sapiens that frequently engage in murder - called tribes.
It's hard to argue with success.
Although I strongly feel that Jim Cameron should send a huge royalty check to Karen Anderson, wideow of Poul Anderson, whose "Call Me Joe" is the most ripped-off literary source for Avatar, I still saw it as the Jazz Singer of 3-D, the GReat Train Robbery of Motion Capture.
I appreciate your brain-theoretic evolutionary insights, with which I mostly agree.
From Ms. Weaver's Esquire interview:
Every job sort of teaches you how to do it.
If I wasn't in Alien, I would've been too scared to watch it.
Jim Cameron said, "Science fiction is the exploration of what it is to be human."
When Avatar comes out, it may be like the day we went from black and white to color.
I volunteered to serve food to the workers at Ground Zero after 9/11. There were dogs trained to find living people. The people who worked with the dogs became worried because the day after day of not finding anyone was beginning to depress the animals. So the people took turns hiding in the rubble so that every now and then a dog could find one of them to be able to carry on.
@Jonathan, I suggest that the dogs weren't depressed. They were bored. The handlers were depressed.
I should have edited my sister's remarks. Given our success at reproducing and supporting our numbers, 'stupid' is perhaps the wrong adjective to describe our race. We have been successful not through murder but more so through cooperation. Looked at the vast numbers of 'contracts' that govern our behavior: on the family, social, business, national, and international levels; these are signs of our interdependence at least. Even so civilizations have come and gone because we have not practiced sustainable living and have moved on to the next 'garden' of natural resources when ours runs out.
Presumably we have free will, which allows us the luxury of learning from our mistakes rather than 'following orders'. (It is instructive to look up the name Pandora in Wikipedia. She is not so different from Eve and the apple or the dwarf Albrecht who stole the Rhinegold from the Rhine daughters after they lovingly described the beauty and power of the gold they guarded). So perhaps our race has been imprudent rather than stupid. Have we now learned enough from our mistakes to turn our behavior around before we destroy life on the planet, ourselves included?
One of the main arguments that defenders of TV make,
is that TV (the medium) is just as mentally stimulating
as reading. Now that scientists have done brain scans
of people watching TV/movies, and of people reading,
why not compare the results?
With the one exception of the Scientific American
article ""Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor"
which mentions that EEG studies show less mental
stimulation while viewing TV than while reading,
science writers have studiously avoided writing
about this subject. Why is that?
Why do you consider it pretentious to write knowledgeably about Greenberg or Borges, as opposed to writing knowledgeably about neuroscience?
Cameron's goal is to make us fall in love with Pandora.
Then our love can become a vector for whatever he wants to tell us.
And a vector for the sequels.
The mytho-poeisis of Pandora is simply splendid.
Two tree symbology, Grace AUGUSTINE, eden/garden, pandora, the Fall, messiah/avatar, miyazaki themes, hindu, christian, buddhist, and islamic mythos combined.
I'm kinda surprised at your pantheism comment......I thought SBH was investigating the unity of existence concepts in buddhist prana and islamic wahdat al wujud, but w/e.
In hinduism an avatar is an incarnation of a deity, mostly an aspect of vishnu in the form of a man, animal, or mythological creature.
We are all avatars now.
oh, yeah....i luffed it...and the console game is supersweet too.
and...you might give the sequels a bit of thought....
why are the Na'vi a warrior culture?
Who did they fight before the bush-cheney-clone mercenaries happened on the scene?
Did the Pandoran ecosystem evolve.....or was it bio-engineered by a post-technological civilization as an escape pod?
You can say you don't like the messages....or you can say you don't get the messages (not everyone has as good a mythology and comparative religions background)....but you can't say the messages are simple or non-existantant.
they are just......subtle.
I seem to be noticing a very wide divergence in opinions on what Avatar means, the story it is telling, what myths it is plugging into, who was plagiarized, etc. especially when this blog post is added to many others I have seen now. Is Avatar possibly something like the I-Ching? By providing ambiguity and hitting basic emotional buttons of good and evil, rather than trying to sell some specific message - is Avatar, for each of us, perhaps a reflection of our own reality and world-view where we each are free to interpret it to mean what we already believe to be true about the world?
Good one Ray.
Avatar is a "mirror for witches", which just really reveals ourselves.
You are dead wrong. There was little self-forgetting by the audience in Avatar. I have never seen so much white guilt in one place at one time in my life. When the tree comes down, you can almost read the "Oh My God, What have my white people (including those impostors posing as blue people) done?" But once again, Hollywood has done its job. Don't all the white people (audience) feel so good about themselves at the end? I saw lots of smiles. The quickly forgot the guilt they were feeling, and THAT, my friend is what movie watching in American means, especially for the big box office films. Uhh, maybe you are a little young.. There was a little flick called Dances with Wolves where, a movie about Native people but whose two protagonists are white? Avatar.
It seems to me that, ever since the premier of Star Wars in 1976, there has been a dearth of movies that are thought-provoking and intellectually interesting, and an over-abundance of ones that are mindless pieces of escapist eyeball-candy. This experiment helps to explain why. Bust it does not show that this is a good thing.
Interesting post, Jonah. I propose an experiment: given that cognitive theories of how people respond to books, films, art, etc. claim the greatest success when they produce consistent results across cultures (thus demonstrating that the reaction is grounded in our brains apart from cultural construction), show Avatar to your average urban American audience. Then show it to, say, a Navajo audience, or a West Indian audience, or any other group of test subjects from around the world from cultures with a recent or deep-seated memory of being colonized. Compare. That would tell us something about whether Avatar appeals to deeply embedded Chomskyan cognitive universals, wouldn't it? And perhaps even answer the sociological critiques of racism, noble savagery, and so on and so forth.
Also, your comment about Avatar being a film about watching film reminded me of how most film scholars talk about Alfred Hitchcock. But more on that here.
It seems like there are many different types of situations that can cause one to lose oneself. I don't think they necessarily call for being overcome by a cacophony of stimuli in an IMAX movie theater. Obviously, it is easy to lose cognition in favor of the senses, such as when we are frightened. This may be why people burdened with the anxieties of day to day life seek relief in adrennalin addictions. But I also wonder how much the basic act of "focusing" whether it be on a picture, a math problem, or a book can feel like an escape from reality because it helps shut down other areas of the brain when cognitive energy or conscious processing is being channeled into one area. When we say cognition, at least in this blog, we tend to be talking about prefrontal cortex activities such as planning. This is why sensorimoter stimulation is considered a distraction from cognition. However, I think cognition itself can be a release or distraction, so long as one is focused enough on one thing. An activity like writing or mathematical problem solving can put enough focus into one cognitive area so that it feels like an escape. Since all the conscious processing is being spent in one area, there is no room for it to be spent in another.
I saw Avatar in 3D at the theatre when it first came out and iv been suggesting it to people ever since. Its a very long movie but its worth watching.