If you’ve ever gone to a particularly violent movie, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of sitting in a room full of people, many of whom are howling in a sort of sympathetic resonance during acts of extreme violence. A certain type of people, however, not only find this sort of experience distasteful, they find it baffling. “Why”, they wonder, “is everybody being so loud and excited during a scene with violence (which is horrible, just horrible)?”
In a very real way, this sort of attitude reflects a distinct disconnect from the core of our humanity itself; it is, in short, a result of people confusing the veneer of civilization with the quintessence of being. To put it simply – we are animals. To ignore that is an act of folly, and willful blindness.
Society is an amazing abstraction, and a tempting self-deception. But strip away the neocortex, and we’re left with the lizard brain – a state of emotional primacy without any superego, or abstract cognition, to speak of. And while it’s comforting for us to identify wholly with our neocortexes, our evolutionary legacy is no less potent today than when we were simple carnivorous mammals. Chimps, for example, tend to use vocal signalling while fighting, or while alerting other chimps to a stressful situation. One of the only situations in which chimps observe strict silence is, in point of fact, when they’re out hunting with a war party.
When we watch a movie, a part of our brain maintains our awareness that what we’re watching is fiction, and pure fiction. But, at the same time, the lizard brain is responding to events on screen, as if they were real. During a scary scene, heart rate rises, pupils dilate, and so on. The lizard brain doesn’t know it’s fiction, the lizard brain doesn’t really have the cognitive power to conceptualize abstract entities like ‘fiction’. Instead, the lizard brain reacts powerfully and primally.
What the lizard brain ‘knows’ is that your body is undergoing something very similar to a flight-fight response, and that violence is going on somewhere in your field of perception. The emotions that it calls up are ancient beyond ancient, and aren’t subservient to our elaborate social conditioning. In the theater, in the dark surrounded by other members of your movie-troupe, the lizard brain reigns supreme. When other chimps howl, individual chimps howl along with them. As for whether the violence being done is being done to, or done by, the protagonist? That’s largely irrelevant. When the troupe howls, whether they’re howling to put up a warning about a predator’s presence, or howling in anger, or to glory in a kill, the whole troupe is caught up in the emotional energy.
That emotional entanglement is part of the power of fiction – it bring us the simple drama unfolding on the screen, and we connect to it consciously and liminally, as well as subliminally. Your lizard brain doesn’t know that, when your heart rate shoots up and adrenalin is dumped into your bloodstream, that it’s because a fictional serial killer is fictionally killing a fictional blonde. All your lizard brain knows, is red, raw, and pulsing. It’s during these moments, exactly, when the facade of civilization begins to break down, and we get a peek behind the curtain. Cinema’s power may seem to lie in carefully crafted stories and deep character exploration. And in a way, that’s true enough.
But the real power of art is that it partially bypasses the neocortex, and stirs up deeper levels of our consciousness. When the blood is flowing, the myths of civilization all disintegrate and fall apart in tatters. At that moment, there is only the lizard brain, the old brain, the core aeons of evolution. And when chimps get agitated, they howl. Male and females, adolescents and adults – when the blood flows hot and thick, the lizard brain, the old brain, knows exactly what to do.