Assessing How the Brain Processes Social Information, With Help From a Documentary

Courtney Jimenez, a psychology PhD student, is building experiments that explore how social our time spent alone is.

Christopher D. Shea
March 19, 2024

For a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Psychology PhD student Courtney Jimenez and her fellow researchers sat subjects down and had them watch a movie.

The movie was Samsara, a documentary that stitches together clips of human rituals and natural wonders in more than two dozen countries on five continents around the world.

Jimenez and her colleagues were interested in how study subjects’ brains reacted to the scenes in the movie that featured people, and how they consolidated their memories of the film after watching it. Columbia News spoke with Jimenez about the goals of the paper, the implications of its findings, and why she and her colleagues chose to use Samsara.

What was the main question you wanted to explore with this paper?

This study is part of a larger body of research we’re doing in Professor Meghan Meyer’s lab, of which I’m a member, where we’re asking questions about the brain’s default network, which is a network that turns on when the brain is at rest. The default network is active when we’re alone and zoning out, but research from our lab and elsewhere indicates that there’s a lot that’s inherently social about our time at rest. We spend a lot of that time thinking about recent interactions, or even rehearsing future conversations, and understanding our status in the social worlds we occupy. Solitary rest time is, in some ways, inherently social.

For this paper, we scanned people’s brain activity as they watched Samsara, and we compared the patterns that their brains showed as they watched the scenes in the film that were highly social—scenes that included humans—with the patterns their brains showed while watching scenes without people. We then asked them to chill out and rest, so their default network was activated, and scanned their brains again. What we wanted to test was whether the activation patterns we saw as they watched the social scenes in the movie were reactivated when the default network was engaged after they finished watching the movie. What we’re interested in is whether there are brain mechanisms that specifically prioritize our ability to learn social information when we are resting and the default network is activated.

What did you find?

One fascinating phenomenon is that the brain patterns we see when people are watching the social clips seem to recur afterwards, when people are at rest, which suggests that their brains are replaying and consolidating the experiences they had while watching the movie. We also measured peoples’ memories of Samsara, and saw that they were better at remembering the parts with people in them than the parts without people, and that the amount to which their brain patterns recurred after watching the film related to the accuracy of their memories.

The big takeaway is that the minute our brain gets a chance to breathe after we’ve been navigating our social environment, we’re seeing brain patterns that suggest that the brain is consolidating those social experiences so that we remember them well, and remember them better than any non-social experiences. That means that when we’re navigating our day-to-day lives, where our brain might have just a few minutes to consolidate whatever’s happened, our results suggest that it’s prioritizing social content.

How did you pick the film Samsara?

Within our field there’s an interest in what people call naturalistic stimuli, as opposed to more traditionally controlled psychological experiments, where you feel like you’re in a lab doing a task that feels quite removed from our lived experience in the real world. We wanted something that was going to get at our question of sociality: as a kind of proxy for what our brain goes through when we’re navigating a social environment, we simply had subjects sit back and watch people go about their daily life in a movie. But we didn’t want that movie to be narratively driven, since we didn’t want the rise and fall of the narrative to be a factor that got mixed up with other factors, so we chose the documentary, which doesn’t quite tell a particular story.

Why watch a movie rather than, say, measure people’s reactions to a football game or Broadway show? 

Watching a movie is something that fits in the lab a little better than seeing a play out in the world. There are people who point out that films are designed to direct people’s thinking, even a movie like Samsara, with edits and film angles and so forth. It doesn’t perfectly replicate our lived social experiences, but it may get us a little bit closer and it still provides us with a lot of useful data.

You came to Columbia with your lab director, Meghan Meyer, when she transferred here from Dartmouth. How did you make the decision to come? 

When Meghan came to Columbia, she gave the members of her lab a choice to join her here or to continue our work at Dartmouth, which I am incredibly grateful for.

I loved living in the middle of the New Hampshire woods where Dartmouth is located; it’s so beautiful there, and the training I received in social neuroscience was irreplaceable. But getting the chance to come to New York City for a couple of years to continue my graduate training in a completely new department with a whole new host of faculty experts also seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I don’t think I’ll stay here forever, but I’ll be forever grateful for the chance to stay here as more than somebody who’s just passing through.

Do you have any favorite New York activities?

I am a huge fan of women’s sports, specifically, women’s soccer. The New York/New Jersey team, Gotham FC, won the championship last fall! I bought season tickets before they got very far, for about $11 each, so I will get to go in person to a lot of the games in this upcoming season with them as the reigning champs.