Sunday, September 19, 2010

The failing of a legacy and a bit of neuroscience

One of my sources of income involves me working as the projectionist for the local Air Force base theatre. Before the start of many films geared towards younger audiences there often tend to be various shorts. The film company Pixar has become quite notable for the creativity they put into these shorts. However the short I saw just the other day was not done by them and did not have anything remotely similar to creativity. In fact I would go so far as to say it was the very opposite of creative and nothing more then a cookie-cutter style cartoon.

Now generally I would not have much to say about such a forgettable animation. But this was different, as when it started I was actually a bit excited to watch what I was sure to be an enjoyable cartoon. Why was I so sure of this at the start and thus, left with such a feeling of emptiness upon its conclusion? I was so sure because it was a Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon.

I remember especially loving these cartoons when I was younger. I knew they were absurd and filled with gratuitous violence. And I also knew what to expect when I watched each one. But this is not why I have always loved them. What drew me to them was the fact that they were the perfect juxtaposition of Goldbergian and Murphian philosophies. It was the fusion of the ideas of "anything worth doing is worth over doing" and "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong". The two concepts play off one another so perfectly that each episode of the original cartoon offered a new example of engineering absurdity failing in the most spectacular fashion possible.

But the cartoon that I watched was nothing more then repetitive slapstick. There was no variation, no build up as we watched a ludicrous series of contraptions failing or working too well, just the Coyote jumping off a bridge with a bungee cord to grab the roadrunner who was feasting on a strategically placed pile of bird seed. The series of events were nothing more then just a play of the same theme over and over, Coyote jumps off the bridge, when he reaches his nadir he is struck by an on coming truck and flung away. In successive attempts, he is volleyed between trucks or is stretched and then released. There are no other apparatuses or contrived schemes. Just the same concept done over in differing ways. It lacked the finesse of the original cartoons and left me with a feeling of hollowness.

Must all cartoons be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator like this? What happened to playing to the intellectual audience while still giving the child the laughs they sought? Do the producers think so little of the current generation or have they lost that spark of creativity and now only create to make a pay check? Is comedy that requires a bit of thought to appreciate really too much to ask of an audience?

Now some have criticized these cartoons as being overly violent and conditioning children to laugh at the pain of others. While I will agree that one does get a hearty serving of Schadenfreude with every episode, I would not say this is inherently a bad thing. We as humans are naturally conditioned to laugh at the pain of others. This is not because we enjoy inflicting harm upon others. But because we are an empathic species.

Our brains are loaded with mirror neurons, a genius innovation by evolution that fires whenever we see someone doing something or experiencing something. These mirror neurons and mirror neural pathways allow us to learn by proxy. This is why we can see something done and put ourselves in the place of the person doing the action. It is also why our hands flinch when we see another persons hand injured or wince when someone else is harmed. They are both a wonderful learning tool as well as an invaluable capability for empathic bonding and interpersonal understanding. In fact, the evolutionary trait of having such unprecedented levels of mirror neurons is what contributed to the development of our social system and intrinsic moral compass.

As a side effect of having all these mirror neuron complexes is the problem of dealing with the emotional strain of feeling the pain of others so often. If we did not have an outlet for this, the emotional turmoil we would suffer from seeing others injured would tear us apart. So an outlet did form, our natural reaction to laugh when we know there is nothing that can be done to help the person and that the injury is not life threatening. When such injuries occur we often cannot help ourselves but laugh, this is because when the mirror neuron systems fire and our brain recognizes the situation as one that is not life or limb threatening and one we cannot do anything to assuage the pain of the other, our limbic system kicks in and releases endorphins and various parts of the brain that involve emotional and pain responce such as the amygdala, hippocampus, periaquductal gray and hypocampus all start firing sending us into Gelotoleptic fits, otherwise known as laughter. This whole series of events is an emotional survival mechanism, one that if we lacked, we would soon all become so emotionally frail that seeing the slightest injury inflicted upon another would send us into extreme duress.
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