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Suspenseful Films Narrow Perception to Focus on Story

Suspenseful Films Narrow Perception to Focus on Story

Emerging research explains how a suspenseful movie can trigger physical and perceptual changes in our body.

As an example, the movies of Alfred Hitchcock have made palms sweat and pulses race for more than 65 years. In the new study, researchers measured brain activity while people watched clips from Hitchcock and other suspenseful films.

Investigators discovered that during high suspense moments, the brain narrows what people see and focuses their attention on the story. During less suspenseful moments of the film clips, viewers devote more attention to their surroundings.

“Many people have a feeling that we get lost in the story while watching a good movie and that the theater disappears around us,” said Dr. Matt Bezdek, the Georgia Tech postdoctoral psychology researcher who led the study.

“Now we have brain evidence to support the idea that people are figuratively transported into the narrative.”

In the study, participants lay in an MRI machine and watched scenes from 10 suspenseful movies, including Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” as well as “Alien” and “Misery.” As the movies played in the center of the screen, a flashing checkerboard pattern appeared around the edges.

Investigators discovered an ebb and flow of brain activity in the calcarine sulcus, the first brain area to receive and process most visual information.

When the suspense grew, brain activity in the peripheral visual processing areas of the calcarine sulcus decreased and activity in the central processing areas increased.

For example, during a famous “North by Northwest” scene, the brain narrowed its visual focus as a biplane bore down on Cary Grant. When he hid in a cornfield and suspense decreased, the neural activity reversed course and attention broadened.

Essentially, when suspense is the greatest, our brains shift activity in the calcarine sulcus to increase processing of critical information and ignore the visual content that doesn’t matter.

“It’s a neural signature of tunnel vision,” said Georgia Tech’s Dr. Eric Schumacher, an associate professor in the School of Psychology.

“During the most suspenseful moments, participants focused on the movie and subconsciously ignored the checkerboards. The brain narrowed the participants’ attention, steering them to the center of the screen and into the story.”

The checkerboard pattern was used because neurons in the calcarine sulcus are typically attracted to that type of movement. By presenting the checkerboards at all times, the researchers tested the idea that suspense temporarily suppresses the neuron’s usual response.

The calcarine sulcus wasn’t the only part of the brain sensitive to changes in suspense. The same was true for areas involved in higher-order visual areas involved in grouping objects together based on their color and how they’re moving.

Investigators believe the increase in brain processing activity during moments of high suspense may lead to improved memory storage of story-related information.

The study will appear in a future volume of the journal Neuroscience.

Source: Georgia Tech

Suspenseful Films Narrow Perception to Focus on Story

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Suspenseful Films Narrow Perception to Focus on Story. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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