Rhythmic structure is very important in communications. Rhythm and beat in language helps us organize information in a conversation to avoid cognitive overload by focusing on predictable, strategic moments on which to pay attention.

In spoken language, for instance, the words you stress are the important ones. You automatically speed up or slow down on the words in between so that major points of stress form a regular chain of beats. In face-to-face conversation, the beat is when speakers often convey key information or bring up new topics.

The “beat” is also the “fundamental unit of film structure reflecting the co-creative dance that takes place between the director and the audience.” Of course, the director can lead audience attention by the rhythm and pacing of the information flowing through the film, but the audience must follow.

A peak in a memory map graph is a tool for visualizing the beat of film, as it is reconstructed from audience short-term memory. The beat of the visual processing of the story, in neuroscience terms, can be identified with the “attentional blink.”

We can show how this works with some research we did on the Bazaar scene, the mid-act climax in the classic film Casablanca. 

In his book Story, the script writing guru, Robert McKee, deconstructs the Bazaar scene into eleven beats. In his play-by-play analysis, McKee explains how the back-and-forth dialogue and the body language between Rick and Ilsa emotionally carries the audience forward as new information is revealed, which then gives the audience new glimpses of insight into what is really going on in the story.

Just as in music, the rhythmic structure of this film is essential for the audience to make sense of information that is presented over time. The beat drives our expectations, creates anticipation and cues the moments when we should pay close attention to what is going on.

Of course, the beat of film should not be thought of just in terms of the snappy dialogue, it also needs to take into account visual exchanges signaling the emotions operating in the movie. It turns out that the unconscious mind can  read the non-verbal emotions expressed by our faces in the blink of an eye.

What we found in this research, in a perfect match between theory and data, is that the eleven beats in the film identified by McKee correspond quite well with the eleven peak moments identified in the test of short-term memory.