The lab is excited by the response to our method of detecting consciousness through the brain’s response to watching an Alfred Hitchcock short film. It has been featured up by the scientific media (Nature, Science), television (CBC, CTV), the press (The Times, Globe and Mail, London Free Press, Macleans, The Verge), in blogs (iflscience.org) and on social media.
Frequently asked questions
It is important for our method that each moment in the film evokes similar thoughts and emotions in different people. Good film directors are skilled at leading the minds of their viewers in a particular direction – and Hitchcock is The Master. This means that at the time in the film when one person is drawn in by the suspense, and their brain activity peaks, others will be too.
In suspense films, in the most tense parts of the movie, there isn’t a great deal of visual motion or activity on the screen. This means that we can separate the brain’s response to tension and its response to visual events. Furthermore, for the neuroimaging to be sensitive, we need some parts of the movie that are exciting and elicit strong brain activity, and other parts that are calm. Suspense movies have this pattern.
Why Bang! You’re dead.
This movie was recommended by Uri Hasson. We needed a shorter version for scanning in patients, and so I edited it from 30 to 8 minutes long, while keeping the story broadly intact. This was my crime, and so I’m sorry, Alfred.
Who were the vegetative patients?
The male patient, who showed a conscious response to the movie, was Jeff Tremblay, who is 35 years old, and has been unable to respond since suffering a cardiac arrest after being kicked in the chest in August 1997. You may read more about the family in Macleans. The female patient, who did not show evidence of consciousness, was 20 years old, and has chosen to remain anonymous.
How did you separate different brain networks?
In a group of 12 healthy adults, we used a method called Independent Components Analysis (ICA) to find brain networks that showed statistically independent patterns of change over time. As all of the people were watching the same movie (and provided Alfred has done his job) then we expected them to show the same time-course of brain activity (see different colours, to the left). We were able to use this additional information by using a method for called Tensor Independent Components Analysis, as implemented in software from Oxford University.
Naci, L., Cusack, R., Anello, M., Owen A.M. (in press). A common neural code for similar conscious experiences in different individuals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences