6 Ways Movies Screw With Your Brain Without You Noticing
Whether you're showing off your Fellini photogram collection or proudly taking a duckface selfie in front of the Entourage poster, we all think of our taste (or lack thereof) in movies as a part of our identity. That said, how much you enjoy any given film could have less to do with your unique, fascinating personality and more with your physiology, and how humans have developed over time. In other words: It's evolution, dummy.
Like it or not (and regardless of what Rotten Tomatoes says), your perception of a movie is forever tethered to the hunk of meat and hair that is your body. This influences your movie-watching habits in ways you probably never considered. For example ...
Airplane Movies Likely Make You Cry Because Flying Is A Goddamn Nightmare
Airplanes: the cinemas of the sky. A plane is the ideal setting in which to view movies you couldn't be bothered to drag your ass out of the house and buy a ticket for. When you're stuck in a cramped seat tens of thousands of feet above the earth's surface, the fact that a mall security officer's last name rhymes with "fart" suddenly doesn't sound like such a bad premise for a feature-length motion picture.
But a lot of people seem to find that watching movies on airplanes make them more emotional. You could be a cynically-minded fuck, but for some reason, on a plane, Cheaper By The Dozen 2 has the Barbara Walters-esque power to reduce you to a blubbering mess. Believe it or not, this has become such an issue that Virgin Atlantic began issuing "emotional health warnings" before movies with potentially tear-inducing content:
"If you're still not weeping, inquire about our alcohol prices."
A survey by Virgin found that 55 percent of their customers experienced "heightened emotions" while flying, and 41 percent of men had even covered their faces with blankets like arrested businessmen to avoid being seen openly weeping at some bullshit movie. So why the hell does this happen? We're not sure, but there are some interesting theories. One possible explanation stems from a 2000 study, which explains that crying in adults "seems to occur in situations where action makes no sense." Feeling grief is a good example. Being in a plane, forcibly immobile, and having ceded all control of your life over to the pilot, is another.
That kid on the other row isn't being a little shit.
He's overwhelmed by that sudden surrender of control.
There's also the fact that a good crying episode never happens during a moment of trauma, but later on, when things have calmed down. Planning a trip can be stressful, so it's possible that when you're sitting there doing nothing, your body says, "Eh, might as well let it all out now" and turns on the waterworks. Of course, if you're watching a Pixar movie, you can't blame the plane -- those guys have a drill-sergeant-like knack for ruining your tear ducts.
Soundtracks Fuck You Up In Ways You Barely Notice
Movie scores began back in the silent era, as a means to drown out the sound of the projector and get the audience to shut the hell up. But they've come a long way since then. After all, can you imagine Star Wars without John Williams' triumphant score? Or Deep Blue Sea without LL Cool J's song about how he's basically a shark himself because he's wearing a fun hat?
Ironically, as they become more sophisticated, soundtracks have also evolved to tap into the more primitive side of our brain. Take the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which may have terrorized a generation and likely caused a huge societal surge in BO, but is still nothing without the music.
If you don't believe us, watch this while listening to this.
A big part of its success lies in the fact that Bernard Herrmann's score for the film replicated the animal sounds of "panic in nature," hearkening back to our primate days. This made it super terrifying, even if we didn't fully comprehend why. These types of semi-subliminal scores aren't relegated to horror, either. A study found that even dramas employ this tactic, because the goal of tragedy is similarly to unsettle (and serve as an excuse for makeout sessions).
Even crazier, some movie soundtracks are using a sneakier tactic to mess your shit up: infrasound. An "extreme bass wave" that makes Barry White look like Barry Manilow, infrasound is below what the human ear can detect. This can have a disquieting effect on people, even causing anxiety and nausea without the viewer ever knowing why. The movie Irreversible used this tactic, because apparently the producers didn't think the explicit rape scenes would be quite unnerving enough without the magic anxiety music.
So good news: Maybe you felt sick because of science, and not basic human empathy!
Paranormal Activity might have also used infrasound on the soundtrack, which could explain why people who saw it in the theater were in a constant state of fear, whereas people who watched it at home without the proper sound system wondered why they were watching surveillance footage without getting the hourly pay of a security guard.
Movies Trick Our Brains Into Accepting Stunt Doubles
Since stunt work is far too dangerous to risk the precious resource that is our nation's movie stars, productions often utilize stunt doubles, subbing out the delicate actor for a skilled professional whose life is presumably meaningless in comparison to that of a celebrity. That means that for a good chunk of the running time, the person you're watching on the screen isn't the star you paid to see, but rather some anonymous dope in a wig.
Team Gerald 4ever.
It seems weird that we somehow accept that. Why isn't it a glaringly obvious, movie-ruining moment when the stunt double shows up in place of the guy we've been watching up until this point? Why doesn't Terminator 2 totally go off the rails when Arnold Schwarzenegger disappears and the love child of Ray Liotta and Madam Tussauds' wax mannequin of David Hasselhoff shows up in his place?
"I'll be back (when it's not so scary)."
Even in less intense scenes, like Captain Picard throwing a punch and tackling a guy, it's plainly obvious that after Patrick Stewart winds up his fist, he is magically replaced by a guy who looks like Stewart's podiatrist.
Maybe it's Mirror Universe Picard, but he went bald on his chin?
Why do our brains not call bullshit on this incongruity? According to a study, the answer is something called a "continuity field." Researchers found that if we see two different faces within a small span of time, we perceive them as the same. We evolved this feature so things like light shifting across someone's face won't make us think that they're a different person entirely, and a pair of glasses won't trick us into believing that a famous superhero is, say, a mild-mannered reporter.
This is the reason stunt doubles are usually able to evade our perception in short bursts, and possibly also why we will never not think Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton are the same person.
Suspenseful Movies Make Our Brains Turn Off The Outside World
We all know that feeling. You popped in an episode of Breaking Bad, and the next thing you knew, you were jobless, surrounded by a Stonehenge-esque monument made of pizza boxes, and knee-deep in your own feces, wondering what the hell happened to the time. Suspense-filled shows and movies seem to have a way of drawing you in, making you forget about the reality of the world, not unlike most cable news shows.
"Ugh, get your shit together, Jessica Jones."
Well, it turns out that this is a measurable phenomenon. Recruiting a bunch of test subjects presumably looking for a research project that didn't involve shooting lasers at their genitals, a cognitive psychologist at Georgia Tech studied the effects of suspense movies on the human brain. The experiment called for subjects to be shoved into an MRI machine to study their brain patterns as they watched different movie scenes -- mostly from the oeuvre of master of suspense / torturer of women Alfred Hitchcock. The scenes were bordered by a flickering checkerboard pattern -- it was kind of like watching a video while simultaneously playing chess after you ingested your weight in mushrooms.
To simulate the effect, kindly spin your monitor around for five minutes.
The effect was even more distracting than trying to watch a movie in a theater full of rowdy teenagers and/or bored married couples engaging in pseudo-exhibitionist sex acts. And yet, the study revealed that during moments of high suspense, the brain narrowed its focus, tuning out its perception of the periphery, even though it was still as frenetic as a Pokemon at a coke party. The area of the brain associated with the edges of the visual field quieted down, while the one related to the visual center went nuts. What's more, in another study, researchers found that the brain will follow the plot structure of Hitchcock movies even if the viewer is in vegetative state, which should be awesome news for Michael Bay fans.
Movies Make Us Emotional Because Our Brains Are Gullible As Hell
When you think about it, the fact that movies even work on us is pretty weird. How can a two-dimensional image of a bunch of strangers trick your brain into thinking you're going on some kind of adventure? Why do we laugh at comedies? Why do we cry when, in real life, you clearly don't give a shit that the lady in The Notebook has Alzheimer's? It wouldn't have any effect on your life if George Bailey tossed himself off that bridge and widowed his wife on Christmas. So why all the emotion?
Seriously, fuck that guy.
It turns out that movies are exploiting something our brains evolved to do. According to neuroscientist Jeffrey M. Zacks, your brain "treats what it's seeing on the screen as if it were real," the gullible sap. More to the point, in what he calls the "mirror rule" humans are compelled to behave how those around us do. Unless you're some kind of sociopath, when someone cries, you yourself become sad. If someone's laughing, you're likely to join in, even if you only overheard the end of the joke and have no idea what's so funny. It's how humans have evolved not to seem like total D-bags when interacting with others.
These impulses have been ingrained in our behavior far beyond the relatively recent invention of movies, so our brains are in a sense tricked by a movie which elicits these emotions, despite the lack of actual interaction. Zacks also talks about his "success rule": If a human response is successful, you repeat it, even if you look like a total dork doing it in a movie theater. That's why you may flinch during an action scene, or test yourself for venereal diseases during the 3D Metallica movie.
Or viewing a John Holmes and Ron Jeremy double retrospective.
"You've got to do something a little extra to override those natural responses," says Zacks. So don't feel dumb the next time a 3D movie makes you duck, or you accidentally think Reese Witherspoon is your best friend. That's just how your dumb brain works.
The Polar Express Sucked Because We Instinctively Fear Death
The Uncanny Valley (as we've covered in the past) may sound like a shitty D&D campaign or an annoyingly trendy dream pop band, but it is in fact the term we've assigned to the creepy way something can look almost human, but not quite. This is why most androids are terrifying and Disney World's Hall of Presidents seem like they're going put aside partisan politics to leap into the audience and stab you in the face.
It was a mistake to equip them with realistic balls.
But easily the best example of the Uncanny Valley in cinema is The Polar Express, the story of a boy's trip to the North Pole to see Santa as told by a screensaver-like animation of a bunch of characters who vaguely look like hollow shells of Tom Hanks. Society as a whole seemed creeped out by this movie, but probably didn't understand why. Well, here's a fun explanation: What's the ultimate thing that looks like a person, but isn't alive? Dead people.
Yep, a lot of researchers have theorized that the human horror of the Uncanny Valley is linked to our fear of the sick, or even corpses. We evolved to fear corpses because they're packed with diseases, and we had to learn to avoid potential carriers of that stuff.
Or conductors, if you will.
Even putting aside our fear of catching sickness from dead people, remember that we also fear plain old death. Scholars believe that Uncanny Valley inhabitants can "elicit fear because they can provide a conscious or subconscious reminder of death." So the next time you're forced to sit through The Polar Express with your family during the Christmas season, remember that the reason Tom Hanks is so freaky is because your brain is telling you he's a festering corpse, and to stay the hell away. Hopefully, psychologists can now turn their attention to even greater mysteries, like why the fuck do elf versions of Aerosmith show up at the end of this movie. Seriously, why did that happen?
He looks more alive than the real Steve Tyler, but that's not saying a lot.
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