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Sunsets: the Marmite of the photography world Following a spate of colourful winter sunsets across Britain, Jonny Weeks explores our fascination with the photographs some people love – and others love to hateWalking through my local park last week, I noticed an especially wild sunset: the sky overhead was an electric shade of violet, and stretching out into the distance over London was an entire spectrum of colour from vermilion red to lemon yellow. It was the kind of beautiful concoction that, in Britain at least, seems to be the preserve of mild winter evenings. And there have been more than a few of late.I wanted to take a photo of the spectacle but, at the vantage point I had in mind, another person had the same idea. I headed to the corner of the nearest street to capture the view through the terraced houses – but there was a cyclist aiming his cameraphone towards the crepuscular skyline as he paused by the roadside. It didn't seem unreasonable to assume that there would be a photographer on every street corner that evening.Sunset photography is a ubiquitous practice; there can be very few people in developed countries who can honestly say they have not snapped a picture of one. But what is our fascination with this kind of photography? Does it say something about our collective nature? The artist Penelope Umbrico, who has developed several works on the subject, believes the lure of sunset photography is simple. "The sun is this incredibly powerful object, and there's only one of them in our world," she says. "The sun can kill us or give us health. It's the symbol of enlightenment, it makes us happy – it's phenomenal."Umbrico first explored sunset photography in 2006 when hunting for the most photographed subject in the world. She culled other people's sunset photos from Flickr and cropped them to remove the surrounding context, leaving only the suns themselves. She then displayed them in a vast, multi-coloured collage. The resulting work, which changes for every exhibition she does, is testament not only to our obsession with sunsets, but our desire to preserve these liminal moments as a social experience."I think we take photos of it for the sense of collectivity," says Umbrico. "We love to participate. That's why we go to concerts, and still go to movies when we could watch them at home – we like to enjoy the same things that other people enjoy."Moreover, the fleeting spectacle of sunset, like a solar eclipse, a meteor shower and the auroras borealis and australis, seems to remind us of our place in the solar system. It rouses a primordial sense of wonder. In the book Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote: "The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight." Perhaps, then, our desire to photograph the setting sun shows a desire to understand the spectacle and, in turn, our place in the greater scheme of things.Even a manufactured sun has the same power as the real thing. Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2003 and 2004 attracted more than two million visitors. The Turbine Hall became a transfixing vault in which the sun, it seemed, had been encased. Eliasson's work traded on the power of artificial light to mimic the soothing effect of sunlight. But while sunsets are generally considered wonderful, the ubiquity of sunset photography is, to many people, nauseating. Susan Sontag opined that "photographs create the beautiful and – over generations of picture-taking – use it up". Thus, "the image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs". But surely photography's value can never be expended, regardless of how hackneyed it is?In an enlightening essay, Annebella Pollen acknowledged that sunsets were among the most cloying of photographic subject matter. "Equivalent, perhaps, to images of kittens or thatched cottages, sunset photographs have a low cultural status: they are characterised as sentimental visual confectionery indicative of limited aesthetic vision and an undeveloped practice; as childlike pleasures." In Immanuel Kant's terminology, they represent "barbarism" of taste. No wonder, then, that the acronym NABSS (Not Another Bloody Sunset) is now used on social media platforms. Despite this, the internet is also awash with tips for amateurs on how to take the perfect sunset photograph and where to go to see the most beautiful examples. Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe and Atacama desert in Chile are among the top tips, while the isle of Skye is often considered the best place in Britain. Of the current Guardian Witness assignments, Share Your Sun has more than 1,000 contributions – four times as many as any other. "I love the fact that when I go on to Flickr, there are thousands more images of sunsets than there were a week ago," says Umbrico. "When I started there were 500,000, then a year later there were two million. That's when I decided to use the number as the title for my work, because I was so floored by it. Today, there are 15 or 16 million. This is what the digital sublime is: a number that's so large you can't even really conceive what it means."But who is taking and sharing these pictures? Pollen's essay references an intriguing study conducted in the 1960s by the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, who tested the reactions of various sections of French society to a number of photographic stereotypes, including sunsets, and found that certain people were more inclined to perceive them as beautiful. The lower classes and least educated were, according to the survey, most likely to acknowledge the potential beauty of sunset photography (88% responded as such). But the situation was more complicated than that. Bourdieu noted: "The proportion who declare that a sunset can make a beautiful photo is greatest at the lowest educational level, declines at intermediate levels [...] and grows strongly again among those who have completed several years of higher education and who tend to consider that anything is suitable for beautiful photography."In the 21st century, almost all of us are susceptible to the desire to take sunset photographs, and it should not necessarily matter if we are unoriginal in doing so. The results, however cliched, remain unique and meaningful. "Sunset photography is the biggest cliche," says Umbrico. "That word has a pejorative implication, but I actually think a cliche can be really useful. It can tell us something about who we are. When you're taking a picture of a sunset on the coast, there could be 1,500 people doing the same along the same stretch at the same time – that's kind of spiritual."Of course, a sunset is only a fleeting experience for an individual. In a project called Constant Setting, conceived in 2008, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino celebrated the true, perpetual nature of sunset by setting up a website that pulls in the latest sunset images from Flickr and posts a new one every minute. The website (which is briefly offline for maintenance work) is a real-time account of our obsession with the earth's rotation in relation to the sun. "Sunset is a fluid, ongoing experience – it's being constantly lived by someone else somewhere else around the world," says Deschamps-Sonsino. Wherever the sun is setting right now, you can be sure there will be at least one person taking a picture.PhotographyArtThe sunPsychologyFlickrSocial mediaJonny © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. 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How Stories Change the Brain Ben’s dying.  That’s what Ben’s father says to the camera as we see Ben play in the background. Ben is two years old and doesn’t know that a brain tumor will take his life in a matter of months. Ben’s father tells us how difficult it is to be joyful around Ben because the father knows what is coming. But in the end he resolves to find the strength to be genuinely happy for Ben’s sake, right up to Ben’s last breath.  Everyone can relate to this story. An innocent treated unfairly, and a protector who seeks to right the wrong—but can only do so by finding the courage to change himself and become a better person. A recent analysis identifies this “hero’s journey” story as the foundation for more than half of the movies that come out of Hollywood, and countless books of fiction and nonfiction. And, if you take a look, this structure is in the majority of the most-watched TED talks.  Why are we so attracted to stories? My lab has spent the last several years seeking to understand why stories can move us to tears, change our attitudes, opinions and behaviors, and even inspire us—and how stories change our brains, often for the better. Here’s what we’ve learned.   Why the brain loves stories The first part of the answer is that as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts. Think of this as the “car accident effect.” You don’t really want to see injured people, but you just have to sneak a peek as you drive by. Brain mechanisms engage saying there might be something valuable for you to learn, since car accidents are rarely seen by most of us but involve an activity we do daily. That is why you feel compelled to rubberneck.  To understand how this works in the brain, we have intensively studied brain response that watching “Ben’s story” produces. We have used this to build a predictive model that explains why after watching the video about half of viewers donate to a childhood cancer charity. We want to know why some people respond to a story while others do not, and how to create highly engaging stories.  We discovered that there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The second thing an effective story does is “transport” us into the characters’ world. What makes a story effective? Any Hollywood writer will tell you that attention is a scarce resource. Movies, TV shows, and books always include “hooks” that make you turn the page, stay on the channel through the commercial, or keep you in a theater seat. Scientists liken attention to a spotlight. We are only able to shine it on a narrow area. If that area seems less interesting than some other area, our attention wanders. In fact, using one’s attentional spotlight is metabolically costly so we use it sparingly. This is why you can drive on the freeway and talk on the phone or listen to music at the same time.  Your attentional spotlight is dim so you can absorb multiple informational streams. You can do this until the car in front of you jams on its brakes and your attentional spotlight illuminates fully to help you avoid an accident.  From a story-telling perspective, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story. Ben’s story does this. How will Ben’s father be able to enjoy his son’s last weeks of life? What internal resources will he draw upon to be strong and support his dying son? We attend to this story because we intuitively understand that we, too, may have to face difficult tasks and we need to learn how to develop our own deep resolve. In the brain, maintaining attention produces signs of arousal: the heart and breathing speed up, stress hormones are released, and our focus is high. Once a story has sustained our attention long enough, we may begin to emotionally resonate with story’s characters. Narratologists call this “transportation,” and you experience this when your palms sweat as James Bond trades blows with a villain on top of a speeding train. Transportation is an amazing neural feat. We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but evolutionarily old parts of our brain simulate the emotions we intuit James Bond must be feeling. And we begin to feel those emotions, too. Stories bring brains together Emotional simulation is the foundation for empathy and is particularly powerful for social creatures like humans because it allows us to rapidly forecast if people around us are angry or kind, dangerous or safe, friend or foe. Such a neural mechanism keeps us safe but also allows us to rapidly form relationships with a wider set of members of our species than any other animal does. The ability to quickly form relationships allows humans to engage in the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space. By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed.  We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. My lab pioneered the behavioral study of oxytocin and has proven that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate. I have dubbed oxytocin the “moral molecule,” and others call it the love hormone. What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us. In many situations, social cues motivate us to engage to help others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.  When people watch Ben’s story in the lab—and they both maintain attention to the story and release oxytocin—nearly all of these individuals donate a portion of their earnings from the experiment. They do this even though they don’t have to. This is surprising since this payment is to compensate them for an hour of their time and two needle sticks in their arms to obtain blood from which we measure chemical changes that come from their brains.  How we learn through stories But it turns out that not all stories keep our attention and not all stories transport us into the characters’ worlds. We ran another experiment that featured Ben and his father at the zoo to find out why. I should mention that Ben was really a boy with cancer who has now died, and the featured father is really his father. In the zoo video, there is no mention of cancer or death, but Ben is bald and his father calls him “miracle boy.” This story had a flat structure, rather than one with rising tension like the previous story. Ben and his father look at a giraffe, Ben skips ahead to look at the rhino, Ben’s father catches up. We don’t know why we are watching Ben and his father, and we are unsure what we are supposed to learn. People who watched this story began tuning out mid-way through. That is, their scarce attention shifted from the story to scanning the room or thinking about what to buy at the grocery store after the experiment concluded. Measures of physiologic arousal waned and the empathy-transportation response did not occur. These participants also did not offer much in the way of donations to charity. This evidence supports the view of some narrative theorists that there is a universal story structure. These scholars claim every engaging story has this structure, called the dramatic arc. It starts with something new and surprising, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must overcome, often because of some failure or crisis in their past, and then leads to a climax where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis, and once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself.  This is another reason why we look at car accidents. Maybe the person who survived did something that saved his or her life. Or maybe the driver made a mistake that ended in injury or death. We need to know this information.  How stories connect us with strangers We also tested why stories can motivate us, like the characters in them, to look inside ourselves and make changes to become better people. Those who donated after watching Ben’s story had more empathic concern of other people and were happier than those who did not donate money. This shows there is a virtuous cycle in which we first engage with others emotionally that leads to helping behaviors, that make us happier. Many philosophical and religious traditions advocate caring for strangers, and our research reveals why these traditions continue to influence us today—they resonate with our evolved brain systems that make social interactions rewarding.  The form in which a narrative is told also seems to matter. The narrative theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote in the 1960s that “the medium is the message,” and we’ve found this is true neurologically.  The video showing Ben with his father talking on camera is better at both sustaining attention and causing empathic transportation than when people simply read what Ben’s father has to say themselves.  This is good news for Hollywood filmmakers and tells us why we cry at sad movies by cry less often when reading a novel. Does any of this matter to you?  We’ve recently used the knowledge we’ve developed to test stories that seek to motivate positive behavioral changes. In a recent experiment, participants watched 16 public-service ads from the United Kingdom that were produced by various charities to convince people not to drink and drive, text and drive, or use drugs. We used donations to the featured charities to measure the impact of the ads. In one version of this experiment, if we gave participants synthetic oxytocin (in the nose, that will reach the brain in an hour), they donated to 57 percent more of the featured charities and donated 56 percent more money than participants given a placebo. Those who received oxytocin also reported more emotional transportation into the world depicted in the ad. Most importantly, these people said they were less likely to engage in the dangerous behaviors shown in the ads. So, go see a movie and laugh and cry. 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