Lights, Camera, Action: How Going to the Cinema Can Improve Your Well-being

Going to the cinema offers not only short term entertainment but also longer term benefits, according to neuroscience.

This is some text inside of a div block.
Text Link
This is some text inside of a div block.
Text Link

Each week, millions of people enjoy a trip to the cinema — but why go out to see a movie? Perhaps surprisingly, there are quite a few differences to watching a movie in the cinema rather than the same film at home.

Screen size

The most obvious is the size of the viewing screen. Despite incredible, 80” 4K UHD TVs, watching a film in the cinema is still a different experience, in part due to the sheer size of the screen. Big images engage a larger part of your brain’s visual cortex than smaller images. In other words, seeing a film on a cinema screen literally engages more of your brain than watching the same film on your sofa, or on the mobile.

This may be one of the reasons why larger screens produce stronger emotional responses and a more intense experience as well as improving recall for the material. Recently, we found that audiences viewing larger screens had significantly greater focus than watching the same content on a small screen.

Lack of distraction

Our ability to focus is routinely challenged by distractions from social media, messaging, phone calls, news, alerts, etc. forcing us to switch our attention between tasks.

A brain system called the central executive must disengage from one task and engage with another every time you switch tasks. Though the time cost maybe only fractions of a second for each instance, these costs accrue with every switch. So even someone who appears to be multitasking efficiently might be incurring costs of up to 40% of their cognitive processing time.

The true cost of multitasking is arguably not efficiency loss, but how it impairs our mental well-being. Compared to a baseline of no interruptions, people report significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure after only 20 mins of multitasking. Taking the opportunity to cutout distractions can help improve focus, reduce stress and anxiety, and may even help improve productivity.


“The very fact of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them into an extraordinary height of exaltation.” Émile Durkheim, Founder of Sociology

Being with other people, whether you know them or not, enhances activity in a part of the brain called the autonomic nervous system. Because this system plays a key role in the body’s reactions to emotions, the ups-and-downs of the storyline are felt more strongly when watching the same story in a crowded cinema than viewing at home. This “emotional effervescence” means you experience higher highs and lower lows simply by being part of a larger audience.

Image via Flickr/Kenneth Lu Watching a BlankScreen (CC BY 2.0) adapted by JulesFuller

These effects on your brain can have a variety of positive benefits. Going to the cinema offers not only short-term rest and relaxation, but may also provide more long-term benefits.

Mental health

The Institute for Social and Economic Research analysed responses to theBritish Household Panel Survey, a nationally representative sample of over 10,000 people. Comparing ten different leisure activities, and controlling for various socio-demographic and economic factors, they found that the amount that people went to the cinema increased their reported happiness, and decreased the amount they reported anxiety and depression.

In another study, it was even found that frequent cinema attendees have mortality risks nearly four times lower that those who never go to the cinema at all.

Social health

Every known human culture appears to invest considerable time and resources in social gatherings that involve storytelling, whether it is purely spoken, performed on stage, or seen at a multiplex. Emotionally engaging stories trigger a neurobiological mechanism — the endorphin system — that regulates social bonding. People watching emotionally engaging films, for instance, report feeling closer social bonds to each other.

Heart health

When we watch a movie, our heart rate goes up and down roughly following the narrative arc of the story. In a cinema, where “collective effervescence”magnifies this effect, we found that audience members spent roughly 40 minutes with heart rates in what the British Heart Foundation calls the “healthy heart zone.” It’s not the same as getting up and exercising — which has additional benefits for the heart, lungs, muscles and even skin — but just watching an engaging movie in the cinema provides a light workout for your heart.

The evidence for beneficial effects of cultural experiences is strong enough, the chair of the Arts Council England has argued, that GPs should consider ‘socially prescribing’ cultural activities to their patients and save the NHS billions.

In other words, going to the cinema means engaging with a large number of other people, sharing a cultural experience, and engaging your brain without distractions, which means that going to the cinema is genuinely good for you.

For additional information on consumer neuroscience, download our free Guide to Quality Neuromarketing.

About the Author

Dr. John Hogan

Managing Director, Co-Founder

As a neuroscientist at UCL, John investigates the early visual processes involved in reading. When not in the neuroimaging lab, John works on research projects with corporate clients aimed at improving our understanding of human judgement and decision making. With over 10 years of consultancy experience, John has provided research services for clients such as Virgin Media, Digitas LBi, Leo Burnett, and MacClaren McCann.

John has published 3 scientific articles in international journals.

More from this Author

Your privacy


We use cookies to improve your experience on our site. To find out more, read our privacy policy.