Talking to Jason Silva might make your head spin. Perhaps not quite in the same manner as the possessed child at the center of The Exorcist, but something closer to the way the film itself does a number on audiences. This is not by accident. Silva’s goal is nothing less than to explain the attention-paralyzing power of storytelling by harnessing that power within his demonstration. It’s kind of a meta approach.
"I want to create media that talks about what media does," says Silva. The philosophical filmmaker and host of NatGeo Channel’s show Brain Games has lately been making short videos he calls Shots of Awe that illustrate the complex science behind how the mind works, in ways that are both literal and metaphorical. With these videos he’s hoping to not only do what all storytellers want to do, and captivate an audience; he also wants to explain why it’s working.
"We are narrative beings. Our humanness is built on the ability to understand ourselves in the context of a story, so we’re basically hardwired for stories," Silva says. "In the age of YouTube, though, we have many more signals competing for our attention. We have the tyranny of the small screen, attention spans are shrunken. You have to change how you tell a story, because at the end of the day, stories only work if you are immersed in them."
The frequent keynote speaker recently lead a presentation during the Tribeca Film Festival’s Innovation Week to explain why movies are especially well equipped to tell stories in a way that envelopes viewers.
"A story is immersive when it effectively induces a deictic shift, which is the moment when you assume a viewpoint of one of the characters of the story, and you forget yourself," Silva says. "They’ve done MRI scans on the brains of people watching movies and they say cinema is the closest we get to dreaming with our eyes open. The lateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-awareness, it goes dim. You forget your body, the theater, your chair. The mind is free from the confines of the body, and that is when you enter the liminal trance state."
Apparently, movies have a harder time achieving such a feat these days—and not just because of YouTube. Over time, we’ve simply gotten used to the latest, greatest stimulus and adapted to it. Whereas the Lumière brothers were once able to incite riotous panic in a movie theater with the sheer spectacle of Arrival At a Train Station, today’s miraculous IMAX effects might elicit a gasp or two. Luckily, the visual whiz-bang of cinema isn’t the only tool for activating viewers’ imaginations.
"All kinds of stories are technologies of rhetoric, and they can induce the same immersive trance states as movies," Silva says. "This is what we want to get from a story, and it can only occur when our attention is fully arrested. When a story is not effective or engrossing, within a few minutes you become agitated, you become restless, you start to look around and wonder when it’s going to end. The difference between a good storyteller and a bad one, no matter the medium, is in the power of the voice to envelop you, to create that deictic shift."
Even if an audience has a million other potentially entertaining options, and even if sensory overload has made us immune to certain stimulation, a powerful voice and a compelling narrative are still as effective as ever. Is Jason Silva really capable of explaining how these tools impact your pre-fontal cortex in a way that can compete with Gravity in 3-D? That might be a whole other story.