Why scary movies freak the heck out of us

As the creator of classics such as Psycho and The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock has earned the title of the “Master of Suspense”, but how do his films (and others like them) affect the brains of those who watch them? That’s exactly what researchers from Georgia Tech wanted to find out.

Matt Bezdek, the postdoctoral psychology researcher who led the study, and his colleagues had a group of participants lie in an MRI machine and watch scenes from 10 different motion pictures, including Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and the movies Alien and Misery. As each of the films played in the center of a screen, the edges were filled with a flashing checkerboard pattern.

They discovered what they called “an ebb and flow” of activity in the part of the brain that first receives and processes visual information, the calcarine sulcus. During suspenseful moments, the brain narrowed so that people could focus on the on-screen action. This tunnel vision went away during less suspenseful moments, and the viewer paid 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. Now we have brain evidence to support the idea that people are figuratively transported into the narrative,” Bezdek explained in a press release Monday.

Intense on-screen suspense suppresses normal neural response

For instance, in North by Northwest, the brain tended to reduce its visual focus as Cary Grant was being chased by the airplane, but the neural activity switched gears and the viewer started to broaden his or her attention after he hid in the cornfield and the suspense began to fade.

“It’s a neural signature of tunnel vision,” said Georgia Tech’s Eric Schumacher, an associate professor in the School of Psychology. “During the most suspenseful moments, participants focused on the movie and subconsciously ignored the checker boards. The brain narrowed the participants’ attention, steering them to the center of the screen and into the story.”

When suspense is at its peak, the brain shifts activity to the calcarine sulcus in order to ramp up the processing of critical data and ignore visual content that is irrelevant to the suspense. The use of the checker board pattern was because neurons in the calcarine sulcus are typically attracted to that type of movement, the authors explained. Making this pattern visible at all times allowed researchers to see if suspense would temporarily suppresses the typical response of those neurons.

The study, which is scheduled to appear in the journal Neuroscience, also found that other parts of the brain – particularly in those areas involved in grouping objects together based on color and movement – were also sensitive to changes in suspense level. Additional research appears to indicate that this leads to increased recall of story-related information, the authors noted.

(Image credit: Thinkstock)


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