Search form

Judgment Day

What neuroscience tells us about how we judge animations (or how ‘Blind Vaysha’ got it right).

With the Oscars over, it’s a good time to take a cognitive look at the judging process. When it comes to judging movies, what does the average viewer have in common with the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? What does judging for the Oscars have in common with how the average viewer rates a film?

Yes, there are obvious differences. Most of the Academy members have more bling and better bods than average viewers. And all of the Academy members have a level of film expertise light years above most of us.

But for the general public and the Academy, deciding which movie is “best” requires making aesthetic decisions -- aesthetic judgments about the film’s merits as art, and about how a movie makes you feel and think.

Aesthetic judgment has been a central topic in philosophy for millennia. Apart from simply arguing about “what is art” or “what is good art,” philosophers of aesthetics also had to confront the fundamental question of knowledge and the meaning making process. In the case of aesthetic knowledge, the question is whether we make decisions consciously or not, with a reasoned, logical mind or sensual, experiential emotion.

Neuroscience uses imaging tools that allow scientists to look at various parts of the brain used to process a stimulus. As these parts of the brain light up, scientists get a picture of what happens when we hear music, look at images, or read stories. The latest research also studies these processes at the neuron level, observing which neurons fire at various stages of perception.  Today, cognitive neuroscience, particularly neuroaesthetics, attempts to locate where aesthetic judgments and emotions register in the brain, and when in the perceptual process they arise.

I recently found a comprehensive review of the neuroscience of aesthetics recently published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The authors examined the history of aesthetic research from its philosophical roots to contemporary neuroimaging. Based on these findings, authors Chatterjee and Vartanian proposed a model of the aesthetic process. They suggest that three processes feed each other incrementally, building up partially formed “best guesses” of what is seen, how to feel about it, and what to think about it.

In general, human perception is built for speed and taking prompt action, not 100 percent accuracy. So instead of a rigid, linear system, the authors consider aesthetic experience as the interaction between 3 main processes: 1) emotional and valenced (the neuroscience term for a stimulus being evaluated as being either positive and good, or negative and bad). For example, as typically researched in the context of “beauty,” what people find beautiful prompts (positive) feelings that are linked to “reward” mechanisms in the brain, while “ugly” prompts (negative) feelings that lead to aversion; 2) sensory and motor; 3) meaning-making/neural.

  1. The first process looks at where the brain gets charged when a specific emotion is evoked and how and where it is valenced as either reward or aversion.  
  2. The second process notes how various brain regions fire up during the perceptual process. In the case of the visual arts, this begins when light hits the retina, through translating 3D external reality into 2D percepts in the mind, identifying an object’s primitive features (color, form, shape), through the brain’s mental construction of an identified object. This process also looks at how regions in the brain associated with motion fire when we see things that move or view things that engage our empathy.
  3. Finally, the third process identifies the regions of the brain that light up as meaning is identified, predicted, represented in the brain, compared with memory and reflected on.

Interestingly, aesthetic experience may not evoke these processes equally, and feelings or sensations may not even factor into the equation. For example, mathematicians and scientists frequently talk about elegant solutions without having any sensory input. Indeed, the same part of the brain activated when beauty is perceived in the arts gets activated in judgments of mathematical beauty.

Aesthetic experience and aesthetic judgments are separate but related, can vary with the depth and intensity of the feeling in aesthetic experience, and are linked to the speed in which particular processing phases occur. For example, one can make a rapid judgment about beauty within 250 milliseconds. But it may take 1000 – 1500 milliseconds to have a deeper appreciation and experience of the “sublime.”

And the authors emphasize that experts can have aesthetic experiences and make judgments that are more nuanced and faster than novices. Experts can quickly dissociate feeling from emotion and re-valence emotion. For example, neuroscientists can see how the expert’s brain can switch off a negative feeling of seeing “disgust” pictured in an artwork, or lose the frequently positive appeal in “simplicity” to favor more complexity (and vice versa). We can also see how the expert brain can take the pleasure out of predictability and shift to the disappointment of boredom.

Alas, neuroscience has yet to attach its machines to the brains of animators or animation viewers, and do its research outside the laboratory. So I did the next best thing and spoke to animation “experts” about aesthetic judgment.

For example, Steven Woloshen, an animator who has sat on juries many times, pointed out that he could tell from the opening seconds just from the soundtrack (or initial silence) if the film was working, if the sound and visuals made sense. “If it doesn’t, I get a bad vibe, but these vibes come very quickly.” Steven’s snap judgments can be changed as the film unfolds and he’s able to reflect and incorporate new information as he watches the film.

Similarly, Alex Boya, another animator, revealed that judging one component of the animation can change your appraisal of another. He noted that his initial response to one film was negative but there was something about the dialogue that held him in his seat until he changed his mind and appreciated the film. “The technique that I thought was lazy at the beginning actually made the story more dramatic.”

Finally, there was the consensus that the rough and even the repulsive have a place in aesthetic judgment.

Chris Robinson, Director of the OIAF since 1995 (and therefore a Black Belt dan in judging), was clear that he had a personal preference for animations that are “sloppy, punk, physical and flawed. They appeal to a sense of urgency more than the carefully polished works. It’s not that the polished works are bad, they’re just not my taste.”

Chris echoes others in raising the point that while they have a personal taste in what they like to see, they are also open to novelty and even to animations that contradict their preferred styles. Everyone agreed that specific elements of style or story do not determine their final judgment, that first impressions can get scuttled during viewing subsequent frames, and that the lines between disgust and pleasure are far blurrier than neuroscience imagines – and not in a “Shades of Grey” way.

Of course, neuroaesthetics fails to account for the actual conditions of viewing or judging a film. Also, most cognitive research doesn’t address one’s mood or the external political, social, or economic reasons for passing judgment in either the formal setting of juried competitions or informally watching a film.

But let’s agree that experts may be able to dissociate aesthetic experience from judgment, and decouple feeling from perception faster than the rest of us. 

So consider this: A neuroscience study found that static image identification can kick in at 13 milliseconds This seems super fast but is still not real-time. In the context of aesthetic experience, visual information is being processed between 250 – 1500 milliseconds. This means that we use our predictions of the (very, very) near future that are based on instinct, distant past memory, or on (very, very) recent past experience.

In other words, aesthetic perception is between 13 and 1500 milliseconds in the past of reality. Future expectation and past experience get muddled together to produce the present. All this to say, Blind Vaysha was right all along.