Your Brain on Movies

by Norman N. Holland

September 7, 2012


When you go to the multiplex and get lost in a movie, your brain functions in special ways. Because you have given over control to the movie, because you're not planning to do anything to or about it, your brain shuts down its systems for initiating actions.  You ignore your environment and even your own body. Since you are not going to act on what you are seeing, you no longer test its reality. You suspend disbelief. The film arouses subcortical emotional systems that your intellectual brain cannot inhibit. So you care about the imaginary creatures and situations you are seeing.  That is, your brain does these things if you are transported, not if you are fingering your iGadget, tinkering with the DVD player, or watching the movie in any of our new ways of viewing, in which you act on the film.


Your Brain on Movies
First published in Glimpse Journal: The art +  science of seeing. Issue 9, Cinema


You buy your ticket, you walk into the theater, and you sit down and you watch and you sit and you watch and you sit and watch and you sit and watch . . . and that's the crucial thing for your brain on movies.

When you sit and watch that way, some special things happen in your brain.  At least they do if you are, as the psychologists say, "transported."  Or, as I would say, if you are really "into" the movie, "lost in it."  Four, at least four, odd things happen.


You cease to be aware of your own body.  You're tired, you have a head cold, your back aches--you forget all that.


You cease to be aware of your environment.  You don't pay attention to the people around you, the exit sign, your seat.


 You don't doubt.   You believe in unrealities.  You simply accept what you're seeing even if it's totally improbable: hobbits, quidditch, Mickey Mouse, Spider-Man.  You have what Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief."


You care.  You feel real emotions toward things that you know perfectly well are not real, that are mere sparkles on a projection screen.

At least you do these things if you are transported.  Why?

The short answer is, because you're just sitting and watching.  You have shut down your brain's systems for acting.  For a longer answer, let's take them one by one.

You know you can't change what's going on onscreen, and you aren't trying or planning to change it.  The movie is in control.  You are passive, just sitting and watching.  And you know this in your prefrontal cortex.  This is the most sophisticated part of your brain, the part highly developed in us and other primates compared to other mammals.  It is here that we plan actions, think about the future, delay gratification, and so on.  And you know in your prefrontal cortex that you aren't going to do any of those things while you are just "into" this movie.

So you lose track of your body and your environment.  Partly that's because you're intensely involved with the movie.  Psychologists call this "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).  When you're doing something to which you devote all your attention, balancing your checkbook, say, you don't have any attention left over for your body or your environment.

But this is a movie, not a checkbook, and movies are special.  You're living out a concept Immanuel Kant put forward: when you're properly appreciating a work of art, you are "disinterested" (Kant 2000).  That is, you don't plan any action toward the thing.  You're not going to try to change it or to move it or even to judge it and write a review of it.  You're just "into" it.

In that happy trancelike state of mind, you're not aware of your body or your environment because they're no longer relevant.  You're not going to do anything about them.  The brain is an economical organ.  What isn't necessary, it doesn't bother doing.

You also don't doubt.  Here disinterestedness plays the key role.  Richard Gerrig conducted a number of experiments in the '80s that showed that people (or at least Yale undergraduates) didn't exactly suspend disbelief when they read stories.  They believed the story for the moment and then they actively disbelieved it, taking a significantly different response time to check the story against other facts in their memories (Gerrig 1998 [1993]). 

Gerrig's work gets confirmation from a well-established human failing: we're very poor at detecting lies.  Psychologists call it "lie blindness."  You might just as well flip a coin to decide whether someone is telling you the truth (Bond Jr. and DePaulo 2006).

Kant's "disinterestedness" is key. Neuropsychology has long established that we assess the reality of a stimulus only if we act or plan to act in response to that stimulus.  For example, Andy Clark writes, "Perception is itself tangled up with specific possibilities of action—so tangled up, in fact, that the job of central cognition often ceases to exist" (Clark 1997, 51).  Two specialists in frontal lobe function, Robert T. Knight and Marcia Grabowecky, put the principle this way: "Reality checking involves a continual assessment of the relation between behavior and the environment" (Knight and Grabowecky 1995, 1360).  Rodolfo Llinás: “What I must stress," writes Rodolfo Llinás ," . . . is that the brain’s understanding of anything, whether factual or abstract, arises from our manipulations of the external world, by our moving within the world and thus from our sensory-derived experience of it" (Llinás 2001, 0000).

But at the local Bijou you're just sitting there and watching.  You're not behaving.  You're not manipulating the external world.  You're not planning what you're going to do tomorrow.  You're "into" that movie.  You have ceded control to the movie projector.  It will go on doing what it's doing and you can't, and don't want to, do anything about it.  Again, the brain is an economical creature. If we are not going to act on something or not even going to plan to act on it, why bother to decide whether it is real or not?  And the brain doesn't.  When you shut down your motor systems in the frontal lobes, you also shut down reality-testing.

Not only do you not doubt, you care.  You feel real emotions about the romances and murders and car chases that are happening on screen.  You experience fear, anger, contentment, sadness, awe, lust, all the emotions we might have in life.  You feel them although you know as sure as you're sitting in a movie theater that the things you are seeing aren't real.  But you'll jump when the hockey-masked creep jumps out at the pretty blond starlet who just opened a door that she shouldn't have opened.  And everybody else will, too.  Pskychologists routinely use pictures and videos of emotion-arousing subjects for experimental purposes.  We moviegoers react emotionally to the mere images as though they were for real.

When we do, we are demonstrating that our brains have different levels.  We make the judgment that what we're seeing isn'r really real in our frontal lobes, probably in the prefrontal cortex .  But we may not make that judgment at all, because of our passive, disinterested state.  Even if we do, we cannot stop the emotions.  This week I was writing an essay on the 1951 A Christmas Carol, the one with Alastair Sim, and, sitting in front of my computer noting changes from the novel, the tears were running down my cheeks, even as I felt contempt for my responding to such treacly sentimentality.  You can't stop those emotions.  Why?

Because they are coming from a more primitive, sub-cortical part of the brain, inside and back of your sophisticated frontal systems.  You are responding from your limbic system, a group of structures that form the inner border of the cortex.  This is a brain region we share with other mammals (and, if you don't think animals have emotions, you've never owned a dog or cat).  By contrast, our prefrontal cortices are much enlarged in us and other primates compared to other mammals.  But these evolutionarily later systems cannot suppress the subcortical activity in the earlier, more primeval limbic system.

Curiously, we enjoy having even unpleasant emotions aroused by movies, anger, disgust, fear--think of horror movies--so long as there are no real consequences.  Hence movies, plays, stories, poems, music, art in general, can give us pleasure.  We seem to enjoy having even our displeasing emotions stimulated so long as we don't have to act on them. 

I don't think anybody quite knows why.  The question is as old as Aristotle who wondered why we enjoy still lifes with disgusting objects in them.  There have been hints lately that perhaps this mechanism serves an evolutionary purpose.  We become more likely to survive and have offspring if we can regulate our emotions.  Perhaps movies and stories generally allow us to have powerful emotions without being carried away by them as we might be in real life.  We practice modulating our emotions--but this is speculation.

And all this is going to change, anyway.  What isn't speculation is the new way we watch movies.  Remember Jon Stewart at the 2008 Oscars?  He pulled out his iPhone and announced, "I love new media.  I'm watching Lawrence of Arabia.  It's awesome.  . . . To really appreciate it, you have to see it on the wide screen."  And he turned his iPhone on its side. 

Stewart and the rest of us with our iPods, iPhones, iPads, and all their iCopycats and DVDs and streaming--we aren't just sitting and watching.  We're in control.  We can turn the iPhone on its side.  We can stop the DVD and start it when we wish.  Or perhaps we're sitting in our living rooms with the day's mail, ads, bills, and solicitations confronting us, reminding us that there are things we need to do. 

What's going to happen in our brains with these new ways of seeing films?  I don't have my crystal ball with me, and anyway, my crystal ball doesn't show movies like an iPod.  But I suspect, not much is going to happen.  We're not going to have the same thrills and chills that we used to have in the local Bijou.  And that's too bad.

The moral of my story, then, is, give your brain a vacation.  Put down your iGadget.  Go to your local movie theater, sit down, and just watch and enjoy.  Get disinterested, free your limbic system, drop your reality-testing.  Let the movie take over your brain.




Bond Jr., C. F., and B. M. DePaulo. 2006. Accuracy of deception judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10(3):214-34.

Clark, A. 1997. Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow : The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Gerrig, R. J. 1998. Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. New Haven: Westview Press, Yale University Press.

Kant, I. 2000. Critique of the power of judgment. Trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. The Cambridge edition of the works of Immanuel Kant. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Knight, R. T., and M. Grabowecky. 1995. Escape from linear time: Prefrontal cortex and conscious experience. In The cognitive neurosciences, ed. M. S. Gazzaniga, 1357-71. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Llinás, R. R. 2001. The I of the vortex: From neurons to self. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Norman N. Holland "Your Brain on Movies". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available April 2, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: August 31, 2012, Published: September 7, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Norman N. Holland