The world of art, neuroscience and, er… competitive affection, collide in a delightful film about a love competition held in an fMRI scanner.
The piece is by film-maker Brent Hoff who seems to be making a series of films based on the idea of emotion competitions.
In this film, competitors are asked to ‘love someone as hard as they can’ while being brain scanned with the prize going to the person with the greatest amount of brain activity.
I was a bit thrown by the piece as I couldn’t work out whether it was a mis-representation of an actual study – the scanning is run by genuine Stanford researchers Melina Uncapher and Bob Dougherty – or an offbeat competition that brought some neuroscientists on board.
So I contacted Melina and got the back story to the unusual piece:
I should say at the outset that it was not intended to be a study, nor was it intended to discover anything new about the brain. It was intended to be a public outreach piece, to help raise awareness that science can be beautiful (in the hopes of advancing interest in science). The finding was simply this: when a group of participants were instructed to ruminate on the person or concept they associate with love, BOLD signal in the nucleus accumbens showed individual differences.
The filmmaker Brent has a thing for emotional competitions, beginning with a previous film entitled The Crying Competition. In that case, as in the Love Competition case, people were explicitly instructed that it was a competition among the other participants in the room, and the person with the highest/fastest respective metric wins.
Here, the person with the highest signal in nucleus accumbens was considered the winner. Contestants were instructed to this prior to entering in the scanner. They all met each other during the interviewing stage, so there was a bit of competitiveness in the air, but it was tempered by the fact that they were considering those they love.
Melina also explained that scans in the film not only show nucleus accumbens activity. They also included a functional connnectivity analysis – essentially seeing which other brain areas change their activity in unison with the nucleus accumbens, which is why you can also see activity across the brain.
Link to film The Love Competition (thanks Sally!)