Monkey social cognition tested by viewing Leone’s “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” (1966)!

Spaghetti western reveals differences between human and monkey brains   Mo Costandi   Neurophilosophy blog   Science

From The Guardian’s Neurophilosophy blog: 

In a 2004 study, Uri Hasson and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance to scan the brains of five participants as they watched a 30 minute clip from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. They found that the film activated widespread regions of the cerebral cortex, especially in the visual and auditory parts of the brain, and that the activation patterns were remarkably similar in all of them. This high degree of synchronicity led the researchers to the conclusion that films can make their viewers’ brains tick collectively; it also led to a new field called “neurocinematics,” which aims to assess the similarities in participants’ brain responses during film watching. . . 


. . . They recruited 24 human participants, and used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan their brains as they watched the same film clip. This confirmed that the film clip evoked the same pattern of brain activity in all the participants, as in the 2004 study. They then did the same with four macaque monkeys, each of which was shown the same clip six times, and found that all four animals also exhibited the same activity patterns as each other across multiple viewings. Next, the researchers compared the activity patterns they observed in the human participants with those of the monkeys, focusing on 34 distinct regions the visual cortex.


In both species, visual information is processed in a hierarchical manner. The earliest stages of visual processing take place in the primary and secondary visual cortical areas, often referred to simply as V1 and V2, which contain cells that respond to the simplest features of a scene, such as contrast between adjacent areas of the visual scene and the orientation of edges. Each successive stage of processing encodes increasingly complex features, with higher order visual regions encoding complex features such as object categories. . .


. . . Like most other films, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a complex multisensory stimulus, filled with rich, operatic imagery and, of course, Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable score. It is, however, fairly safe to assume that humans and monkeys will interpret the film quite differently, and this is one of the major limitations of the new method. We understand the language used in the film and its emotional content. We follow the plot as it progresses, anticipate what is going to happen in the next shot while we watch, and may also make associations with the film, such as watching it on an earlier occasion at a friend’s house.


“I’m pretty sure the monkeys aren’t worrying about plot twists,” says Yarkoni, “but the biggest limitation is the fact that two regions activated at similar times aren’t necessarily supporting the same cognitive processes.”


“Suppose we both watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” he explains, “but every time Clint Eastwood is on screen, you focus on how his presence furthers the plot, whereas I focus on what a nice-looking man he is. You might conclude that you and I have differently organized brains, because different parts of our brains seem to respond to the movie in similar ways”.

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