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Why DARPA is paying people to watch Alfred Hitchcock cliffhangers

Helen Mirren as Alma Reville and Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock on the set of "Hitchcock." (Suzanne Tenner)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds a lot of weird stuff, and in recent years more and more of it has been about the brain.

Its signature work in this field is in brain-computer interfaces and goes back several decades to its Biocybernetics program, which sought to enable direct communication between humans and machines. In 2013, DARPA made headlines when it announced that it intended to spend more than $70 million over five years to take its research to the next level by developing an implant that could help restore function or memory in people with neuropsychiatric issues.

Less known is DARPA's Narrative Networks (or N2) project which aims to better understand how stories — or narratives — influence human behavior and to develop a set of tools that can help facilitate faster and better communication of information.

"Narratives exert a powerful influence on human thoughts, emotions and behavior and can be particularly important in security contexts," DARPA researchers explained in a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience Methods in April. They added that "in conflict resolution and counterterrorism scenarios, detecting the neural response underlying empathy induced by stories is of critical importance."

This is where the work on the Hitchcock movies comes in.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology recruited undergraduates to be hooked up to MRI machines and watch movie clips that were roughly three minutes long. The excerpts all featured a character facing a potential negative outcome and were taken from suspenseful movies, including three Alfred Hitchcock flicks as well as "Alien," "Misery," "Munich" and "Cliffhanger," among others.

"Governments often use stories to present information, so understanding how we comprehend them is important," co-author Eric Schumacher, an associate professor of psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, explained in an e-mail.

What the researchers found is fascinating: When suspense grew, brain activity in viewers' peripheral vision decreased. Schumacher called it the "neural signature of tunnel vision." Moments of increasing suspense were also associated with greater interference with a secondary task. In this case, responding by pressing a button when hearing a tone.

Why is this important?

The study demonstrates that when the brain is processing an "emotional threat" if you will, it affects a person's attention both spatially (vision) and conceptually (across different tasks).

"The results suggest that, when we focus on looming potential threats, we decrease our focus on the world around us," Schumacher and his fellow researchers wrote in the journal Neuroscience on Monday.

The N2 work by the Georgia Tech team and others brain projects funded by DARPA have enormous potential implications for health care, entertainment, marketing and other fields, but a number of scientists have expressed concern that the increasingly close relationship between national security organizations and academic researchers could do more harm than good.

George Mason University anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, for instance, once declared that "[m]ost rational human beings would believe that if we could have a world where nobody does military neuroscience, we'd all be better off. But for some people in the Pentagon, it's too delicious to ignore."

In a March 2012 commentary piece in PLOS Biology, bioethicists Michael Tennison and Jonathan Moreno argue that the "military establishment's interest in understanding, developing, and exploiting neuroscience generates a tension in its relations with science" and warned of the risk of the use of this work for things like "warfighter enhancement," "deception detection," stretch the boundaries of our legal and ethical systems.

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