Memory and experience

This week some papers on memory and experience in the cinema from a cognitive perspective.

One of the interesting things to note is that if you search Google scholar using the terms “viewer memory cinema” you get a lot of references to books and articles on the status of film as memory and cinema as cultural memory; whereas if you search for “viewer memory advertising” the results returned focus on how people experience and remember adverts (and the obvious economic consequences of this). Insights from research into advertising can be useful to film studies, and if we take a step beyond film studies we can find a good deal of empirical research that looks at how people organise and remember their experience of films. This is especially the case when we look at the research on cinema advertising, where we find many studies of how audiences respond to and recall what they have seen on the screen, but which is largely absent from work on cognitive film theory.

As ever, the version linked to may not be the final published version.

An interesting paper recently published by Frontiers in Human Neuroscience looks at how viewer’s organise their experience of a film by segmenting it into meaningful events by measuring brain activity. This research harks back to work in the 1970s by Carroll and Bever on segmentation in narrative cinema (Carroll JM and Bever TG 1976 Segmentation in narrative cinema, Science 191 (4231): 1053-1055).

Zacks JM, Speer NK, Swallow KM, and Maley CJ (2010) The brain’s cutting-room floor: segmentation of narrative cinema, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4: 168. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00168.

Observers segment ongoing activity into meaningful events. Segmentation is a core component of perception that helps determine memory and guide planning. The current study tested the hypotheses that event segmentation is an automatic component of the perception of extended naturalistic activity, and that the identification of event boundaries in such activities results in part from processing changes in the perceived situation. Observers may identify boundaries between events as a result of processing changes in the observed situation. To test this hypothesis and study this potential mechanism, we measured brain activity while participants viewed an extended narrative film. Large transient responses were observed when the activity was segmented, and these responses were mediated by changes in the observed activity, including characters and their interactions, interactions with objects, spatial location, goals, and causes. These results support accounts that propose event segmentation is automatic and depends on processing meaningful changes in the perceived situation; they are the first to show such effects for extended naturalistic human activity.

Although not directly related to the cinema (though films are mentioned), this paper also provides evidence for the way in which veiwer’s segment scenes:

Kurby CA and Zacks JM 2008 Segmentation in the perception and memory of events, Trends in Cognitive Science 12: 729-79.

People make sense of continuous streams of observed behavior in part by segmenting them into events. Event segmentation seems to be an ongoing component of everyday perception. Events are segmented simultaneously at multiple timescales, and are grouped hierarchically. Activity in brain regions including the posterior temporal and parietal cortex and lateral frontal cortex increases transiently at event boundaries. The parsing of ongoing activity into events is related to the updating of working memory, to the contents of long-term memory, and to the learning of new procedures. Event segmentation might arise as a side effect of an adaptive mechanism that integrates information over the recent past to improve predictions about the near future.

Both these papers come from Jeff Zack’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University, St. Louis, MO., and his webpage can be accessed here.

This next piece seems almost quaint now, with its tales of students who did not own a CD in the late-1980s, but provides some evidence for the way in which a viewer understands adverts in different ways.

Mick DG 1992 Levels of subjective comprehension in advertising processing and their relations to ad perceptions, attitudes and memories, Journal of Consumer Research 18 (4): 411-424.

Two fundamental orientations toward message comprehension have appeared un advertising research: the traditional objective view, which applies to the accuracy criterion to conceptualize and evaluate comprehension, and the subjective view, which applies other criteria related to the individual comprehender and the actual experience of the message. This article develops a framework for four levels of subjective comprehension on the basis of an elaboration criterion. Comprehension levels are hypothesized to differ in the relations to ad perceptions, attitudes, and memory. Results from an empirical study provide initial support for the framework, including new theoretical insights and explanatory ability beyond the objective orientation. Discussion focuses on implication for advertising theory and consumer research.

Lang A, Zhou S,Schwartz N, Bolls, PD, and Potter, RF 2000 The effects of edits on arousal, attention, and memory for television messages: when an edit is an edit can an edit be too much?, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 44 (1): 94-109.

This study examines the effect of the rate of edits (camera changes in the same visual scene) on viewers’ arousal and memory. The rate of edits varied from slow to very fast. Results show that as the rate of edits increases physiological arousal, self-reported arousal, and memory increase. It is suggested that edits can increase attention to and encoding of television message content without significantly increasing the cognitive load of the message.

An interesting paper looking at cinema advertsing is this piece from Hong Kong Baptist University, which focussed on how different groups experienced and recalled cinema advertising and what factors (screen size, stereo sound, etc.) affected those experiences. It reveals some interesting results: in Hong Kong, women are more likely to enter a theatre before the advertising than men, and so advertising directed at this group is likely to be more effective. I know of no similar study in the UK or the US, but I’m sure some data will exist somewhere – and if it doesn’t, then it should and there is a PhD here for someone.

Prendergast G and Chan LW 2003 Cinema Advertising in Hong Kong, BRC Working Papers, School of Business, Hong Kong Baptist University.

Cinema advertising offers a relatively less cluttered environment for advertisers to present their message to a captive audience. However, little is known about its effectiveness, especially in countries such as Hong Kong (a country that is relatively underdeveloped in terms of cinema adspend statistics). Building on the work of Ewing, Du Plessis and Foster (2001) and Dunnett and Hoek (1996), insights into perceptions of cinema advertising in Hong Kong were obtained from a survey of 150 interviewees. Different from previous studies which utilized dela yed recall, this study interviewed audience members immediately after they had viewed a particular movie. Results showed that cinema advertising exposure and recall rates were significantly related to various demographic variables, especially gender and age. Furthermore, the level of recall was found to be correlated with various situational stimuli in the cinema, such as the larger than life screen, Dolby stereo sound, the silent environment, comfortable seats, and audience members’ expectations to focus on the screen. Based on these findings, recommendations for cinema managers and advertisers are made.

One the major criticisms abelled at the recent Bond movies is that they are so stuffed with product placement that they often appear to be little more than glorified adverts. Recently, television programmes in the UK were given the go ahead to include more product placement as a way of increasing advertising revenues. Clearly, then it would be useful to ave some research int he effectvieness of product placement in films -and we have this research:

Bressoud E, Lehu, J-M, and Russel CA 2008 Integrating placement and audience characteristics to assess the recall of product placements in film: findings from a field study, 7th International Conference on Research in Advertising (ICORIA), 27-28 June 2008, Antwerp, Belgium.

This research incorporates into a single model characteristics of product placements in films and characteristics of the consumers and their viewing environment to assess the memorability of the placements. Eleven movies containing a total of 98 placements of varied characteristics were coded. 3,532 individuals who viewed a DVD rental of one of these movies at home completed a questionnaire on the following day. The questionnaire included audience viewing characteristics as well as a free recall measure of placements. The results reveal important insights into the variables thataffect, positively or negatively, the day after recall of products placed in movies.


About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on November 11, 2010, in Cognitive Film Theory, Film Industry, Film Studies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thank you very much for this. There are all too many studies on film as memory (a nebulous concept at best) and puzzlingly little on how the brain organises the memories of film. Looking at studies of film advertising is a neat bit of lateral thinking.

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