Lessons from Movie Watching

by Krishna on January 12, 2007

Take a look at the following quotes and guess where they came from.

Even if you are not a movie buff, you probably got all three movies right. Remembering movies, their plotlines and quotes is fun. You get to use the quotes when you have fun with your friends. Probably when seeing the movie again, you know exactly what the character would say at a particular time in a scene. When re-runs of “Everyone Loves Raymond” come on TV, my wife and I sometimes burst out laughing knowing what the characters are going to say or do next.

When you think about it, it is actually pretty amazing that we can remember such movies to the minute details. We don’t go into a movie theatre or pop in a DVD and start making notes or even consciously decide to remember the movie. We just want to have a good time. Somehow, the movie sticks in our brain and we can easily regurgitate everything that was shown or spoken in the film. It doesn’t matter how well we did at school — anybody and everybody we know has this capability.

Why is the movie-watching experience different from sitting in a classroom and hearing a lecture? Most people find it difficult to remember or learn much. Some observations:

  • The classroom lecture is a one-track method of teaching and learning. It is singularly monotonous and typically has limited room for dialogue. This may seem ideal for learning because it has less distractions with only one source of information. However when compared to the movie form, it is less complex and fails to engage the mind. The interactions between various characters excites different feelings in our brain and keeps us more engrossed. A recent book “Everything bad is good for you” explains how more complex TV shows and video games are more popular than simpler ones. Contrast the intricacies and complications in “24” and “Lost” with older action and mystery plots.
  • It should be observed that some students do learn a lot from the lectures. My experience (and yours probably) has been that the ones who go in with an intention to try to understand what is going on pick up things better than those who have already decided that it was going to be a wash-out. In fact, this is the same as watching a bad movie. Usually within the first few seconds (and definitely 95% of the time within the first 5 minutes), we know if the movie is a bomb. After all, it is all going through the motions using the sunk-costs fallacy. You don’t remember the bad movies so well. [You do remember the really bad movies because they evoke incredulity, disgust and other strong emotions instead of just plain boredom]Back to learning, the attitude going in to the lecture helps a lot. In fact, even strong negative feelings towards the lecturer may help because you will be intently listening to what he/she has to say so that you can point them out or reinforce your internal negativity towards the person — I wouldn’t recommend this, but it has worked for me for a couple of teachers who didn’t know what the world they were doing.
  • If you are seeing the sequel first, you probably got the plot, but didn’t follow many references made by the characters. In the classroom, unless you are already prepared with the pre-requisites (like calculus for an advanced physics class), chances are that even an initial interest in the lecture will die a quick death when you don’t quite get the flow (what the heck is the integral of a natural log, anyway?). Be prepared!

There are good lecturers and bad ones. There were many teachers and professors whose classes I really looked for because they made the subject so interesting with their presentation and stories. Today audio tapes offer another lecture-like venue. People like Tom Peters and Malcolm Gladwell make the listening and learning so much worthwhile.

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