Why are movies so compelling? Why did I spend the weekend binge watching an entire season of a TV drama? Fortunately for me, I can prevent myself from getting hooked on many such programs. Yet our addiction to the screen can be so seductive that it requires daily fixes. Over the past 100 years, filmmakers have discovered clever ways of capturing our attention and moving us through a dramatic plot. From a psychological standpoint, if we could uncover the attraction of movies, we may better understand basic features of human nature, such as motivational drive, spatial perception, imagination, and social engagement.

The scientific path to our understanding of movies is best approached by considering how filmmakers guide us through a dramatic plot. In one study, psychologist Tim Smith recorded eye movement behavior while individuals watched clips of feature films, such Blade Runner and There Will Be Blood. Interestingly, as they watched a movie clip virtually all of the subjects began to fixate on the same spots on the screen at the same time. Smith calls this phenomenon attentional synchrony, and it is as if filmmakers—through acting, set design, movement, sound, and editing—know exactly how to direct our attention. Indeed, Walter Murch, the Academy Award winning film editor and author of In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, suggested that good filmmakers must be aware of the psychology of the viewer: "What is the audience going to be thinking at any particular moment? Where are they going to be looking? What do you want them to think about? And, of course, what do you want them to feel?" (Murch, 2001, pg 21).

When we watch a movie our brains become tuned to the action. In a fMRI study, neuroscientist Uri Hasson presented four film clips to individuals: one clip came from Bang! You're Dead, an episode from the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, another clip was from the movie The Good, Bad, and Ugly, a third clip came the TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the fourth clip was from a stationary camera filming people walking around Washington Square Park in New York. Hasson used a statistical analysis called inter-subject correlation (ISC), which assessed the extent to which regions of brain activity are synchronized or co-active across subjects. As shown in the figure, there was a high degree of synchronized brain activity while subjects watched the clips from Bang! You're Dead (green region= 65% of cortex) and The Good, Bad, and Ugly (blue regions= 45% of cortex). Less synchronized activity was observed in the Curb Your Enthusiasm clip and video of people walking around Washington Square Park—these two clips offered minimal or no real plotline (Curb Your Enthusiasm is a fictionalized comedy show about the daily life of TV producer Larry David and was often shot without a script).

from Hasson et al. (2008, Projections)
Source: from Hasson et al. (2008, Projections)

In the Hasson study, it was the videos that included an engaging story that induced broad co-active brain regions across subjects. Showing a mundane video of people waking around did little in synchronizing brain activity. Good stories capture our attention and keep us involved in what will happen next. There is a rhythm to dramatic plots as they move through waves of tension and release or questions and answers. Perhaps more than storytelling, novels, or theatrical plays, the audiovisual experience of movies provides a more direct sensation of being in the drama—though more as a voyeur than a participant. That is not to say that listening to a story, reading a novel, or watching a play are inadequate art forms. Indeed they are exciting in different ways. Yet it may be that the mix of a good story and the feeling of being there are keys to the allure of movies.

As real as movies seem, it is important to note that they are so much better than reality. Would you want to watch a video of anyone’s daily activities? Even Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and so-called reality TV programs are extensively edited to tell a story. I would even argue that as exciting as it would be to enter a holodeck—that Star Trek invention which allows one to experience a virtual reality that recreates the complete sensation of being in any spatial setting—that experience would not be the same as watching a movie. The difference is that a good movie has been crafted to move you through a story. Just consider the fast-paced editing in an action thriller such as a James Bond flick, which in recent years amounts to a film cut every 2 to 3 seconds. Such editing enhances the tension and thrill of the drama, but I suspect would not work at all in a holodeck. Again, it is not that a holodeck would be less fun than watching a movie, it is just that movies offer a rather unique storytelling experience in which you are guided rather than actively involved.

Many have suggested that movies are the quintessential art form of our generation. It is rare to find someone these days who does not enjoy movies or TV dramas. Filmmakers have found a creative and seductive means of storytelling by developing an audiovisual experience that fully stimulates and enages our brains. For an hour, two hours, or worse an entire weekend, we can enter a world, witness the action, and empathize with the characters involved as we commit ourselves fully to an enveloping drama. We have only begun to investigate in a scientific manner how movies drive our sensations, thoughts and feelings—a research field I call psychocinematics. Just as scientists have studied drug effects to help us understand the nature of various mental processes, such as drive, learning, and emotional regulation, we can learn from studying our addiction to movies as they have been formulated specifically to stimulate our brains. Thank goodness (for me) such an addiction has few side effects.

You are reading

In the Brain of the Beholder

Movies in Mind: Our Addiction to the Screen

By studying the allure of movies, we can learn much about how the mind works.

Experiencing Art: It's Not Just for Art's Sake

Every picture tells a story and we can learn much through art.

How We Frame Emotions Through Facial Expressions

In art and in real life, our faces tell stories that we reveal to others.