Your Brain on Movies

We all love a good movie. They transport us, taking us to worlds and environments many of us won’t see in our everyday lives. Movies and the stories they tell can cause us to laugh, weep, feel, and think, sometimes changing us in transformative ways.

Researchers from the Universities of Oxford (UK), Aarhus (Denmark), Buenos Aires (Argentina), and UPF used high resolution large-scale neuroimaging data from 176 people watching movies clips from films including Inception, The Social Network, Ocean’s Eleven, Home Alone, Erin Brockovich and The Empire Strikes Back to directly investigate the hierarchical reorganization of the brain when watching movies.

The team built whole-brain models to examine the brain activity elicited by watching movies, resting, or performing tasks. They found that the brain hierarchy is flatter compared to rest and tasks when watching movies. This suggests that less computation is needed when watching movies. Paradoxically, the brain is less driven by internal dynamics in movie watching than when performing tasks or resting.

This means that while we are absorbed in the action or drama of a film, our brains are free from the stress of working and problem-solving. Instead, it can take in the narrative, engaging the necessary brain circuitry responsible for the highly motivating and soothing pleasure of movies.

Professor Gustavo Deco, the senior author of the article, says: “The study provides novel, important insights into the causal mechanisms underlying complex changes in brain hierarchy. Using more naturalistic stimuli such as movies provide a fast and convenient way to measure important changes in the anatomical connectivity found in, for example, neuropsychiatric disorders, and can lead to new insights in vulnerable populations including children”.

The article’s lead author, Professor Morten L. Kringelbach, adds: “This study provides intriguing new evidence for how movies can change the whole-brain hierarchical organisation needed for orchestrating brain computation. The brain abstracts coherent narratives from still images and sound, which sets us free to transcend the rat race of survival, if even for the briefest moment. The study shows the truth of words of the late great French director Jean-Luc Godard: ‘Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world'”.

You can find the paper “Toward naturalistic neuroscience: Mechanisms underlying the flattening of brain hierarchical organisation in movie watching compared to rest and task” by Morten L Kringelbach, Yonathan Sanz Perl, Enzo Tagliazucchi, and Gustavo Deco in the open-access journal Science Advances.

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