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How does watching movies affect our brain?

A new study published in the journal Science Advances has investigated how watching movies – a favorite pastime for billions of people – makes us feel and think in comparison to other activities such as performing tasks or resting. According to the experts, film watching leads to a “flatter” brain hierarchy, suggesting that less neural computation is needed when performing such an activity, a finding which could explain the pleasurable and escapist feelings people have when engaging in such activities.

The scientists used high resolution large-scale neuroimaging data from 176 people watching clips from movies including Home Alone, Inception, Erin Brockovich, The Social Network, or The Empire Strikes Back to examine the hierarchical reorganization of the brain movie watching elicits.

By building whole-brain models of the neural activity elicited by movie watching and comparing it to models emerging from performing tasks or resting, the experts discovered that the brain hierarchy is flatter when watching movies, suggesting that the brain is less driven by internal dynamics and needs less computation during such as activity, thus making us feel momentarily free from the stressful experience of working and having to solve problems. While watching movies, the brain is allowed to just absorb the cinematic narrative, in a process apparently responsible for the highly motivating and soothing pleasure elicited by movies.

“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,” explained study lead author Gustavo Deco, a neuroscientist at the Pompeu Fabra University in Spain. 

“This study provides intriguing new evidence for how movies can change the whole-brain hierarchical organization needed for orchestrating brain computation,” added lead author Morten L. Kringelbach, a professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford and Aarhus University

“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.’”


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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