• Agents of Change

    • As if he had applied neuroscience to his filmmaking process, Alfred Hitchcock’s work employs suspense in a manner that reflects an eloquent intuition of the mechanisms of our mind.

    How does our brain react to Hitchcock’s suspense? / 

    Contemporary neuroscience has taught us to understand our reactions as the sum of chemical substances and electrical impulses that converge in our brain. Compassion can be explained through a series of processes that take place surrounding our “reward center”, the confusion we feel when we listen to Stravinsky or Schoenberg because our brain instinctively tries to find patterns (and fails) or that poetic resources are pieces of the puzzle of our brain. Paradoxically, none of these explanations demystify these mysteries; instead, they make them all the more astounding.

    Recently, Uri Hasson, from the Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University, studied the fundamental emotions of human beings: fear, uncertainty before the unknown or anxiety before what we expect to be tragic. Fortunately Hasson found that all these emotions are encompassed in single work: Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic creations.

    Hasson however decided not to employ any of the master’s greatest pieces, for example Psycho (1960) or Strangers on a Train (1951), instead he used something that could be administered as a concentrated dosage of the work of “the master of suspense”. And he found that a single episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents fit the part perfectly.

    He chose “Bang! You’re Dead”, the second episode from the seventh season, originally transmitted on October 17, 1961. The episode tells the story of a five year old boy who, like most of his friends and children at the time, pretended to be a cowboy. Everything seems normal at first, and even within the paradoxical normality of the game, a realm that subverts and interrupts reality, according to the theories of Roger Callois. The conflict is triggered by a real gun and bullets, which the child finds while he was going through his uncle’s things, who is visiting the family; the child takes the gun and substitutes the real gun for his own toy version and then goes out and continues playing, as if this swapping had never happened, evidencing that for him, reality has not changed (and in another sense, this minor episode also reminds us why Hitchcock is one of Roberto Calasso’s favorite directors: does this scene not display an essential simulation of reality? Does it not represent the substitution of the archetypal sacrifice that over time took the shape of many substitutions upon which our reality now lies? In this apparent childhood confusion we can find its eloquence: swapping a lamb for the firstborn is, in a way, the same thing as accepting that money is ciphered with the value of all merchandise).

    In “Bang! You’re Dead” there is a moment when the mother of the child tells her husband: “Honey, I’ve a strange feeling something’s wrong”. And suddenly, we feel that it is our own brain that is saying this to our consciousness. There is something terribly wrong when a child points a loaded gun at someone. Even if this is a work of fiction, we react empathetically. We become distraught when little Jackie points a gun at someone, or when he gradually adds more bullets to the gun’s chamber.

    From a neurological point of view, the most astounding aspect of this feeling of unease or tension is that our emotional and corporeal expression of these reactions are made visible by the MRI scanner: our brain remains concentrated, alert, prepared for the moment when danger is finally consummated and the child involuntarily hurts someone. This is, after all, an emotional response to a fictional situation that, at least, shows the prevalence of a part of us over the rational mechanisms of our brains.

    On the other hand, Hasson’s experiment also proves that this filmmaker was a genius. “A sequence of stages designed to have an effect on your brain”, as described by the scientist. Perhaps because, in another sense, Hitchcock understood, with the intuitive eloquence possessed by the brightest minds, how our mind works. 

    Tagged: Alfred Hitchcock, suspense, brain, human brain, neuroscience, cinema