Thought waves

Is it, perhaps, that all films are really silent films? Isn’t cinema just about conjuring up moving pictures in our heads, matching what we see to the world that we know? Aren’t sound and speech mere decorations, means simply to guide us what we want to see? Isn’t everything that we want to find in cinema to be found in silent cinema, when the medium was new and trying to discover all that it could do? And what, fundamentally, has it done that is new since the silent era? And might that be because, perhaps, all films are really silent films?

I offer up these thoughts by way of reaction to the above video, which I present to you as a silent film, simply because it is silent. Sometimes when I point out modern films without soundtracks I wonder whether the connection with silent cinema is purely tokenistic. But now I don’t think so. Films that have lost their sound have returned to some sort of pure state. After all, a story that isn’t told in pictures can’t really be thought of at all cinema, can it?

The video illustrates work undertaken by neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, who have been scanning the brain activity of volunteers who have been watching films. A computer was then able to produce rough reconstructions of what they had viewed, with reference to an archive of 18 million one-second clips taken from YouTube not previously seen by the participants. The computer then matched the clips to the brain activity it had recorded.

The results are peculiarly haunting, indeed dreamlike – ghostly distortions of images that look like a combination of Francis Bacon and Odilon Redon in motion. They are silent, of course, and a form of moving image previously unseen, unimagined. As an Associated Press report says,

Scientists … speculated such an approach might be able to reveal dreams and hallucinations someday. In the future, it might help stroke victims or others who have no other way to communicate, said Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the paper.

He believes such a technique could eventually reconstruct a dream or other made-up mental movie well enough to be recognizable. But the experiment dealt with scenes being viewed through the eyes at the time of scanning, and it’s not clear how much of the approach would apply to scenes generated by the brain instead, he said.

Greater results could be achieved by greater access to a moving image archive (there was no equivalent clip for an elephant, for example), which makes you think how the whole of YouTube might be viewed as the collective dreams of us all.

This second video demonstrates the range of clips from which the computer selected its composite moving image (shown in the top left-hand corner):

The dream videos have gone viral, with over a million views in just a few days. Clearly something speaks deeply to people about the idea of these films, if not necessarily the images themselves. It’s not just that we might, hypothetically, one day be able to recover an entire movie from our brains, or indeed visualise our dreams. It’s that all these pictures are playing in our heads, and that this experiment opens a small window upon them. It’s an idea of the mind as pure cinema.

The paper on which the research is based is ‘Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies‘, by Shinji Nishimoto1, An T. Vu, Thomas Naselaris1, Yuval Benjamini, Bin Yu and Jack L. Gallant. Further information on the project is available from