Getting lost in a movie

How does spending two hours immersed in story affect our cognitive, emotional and physiological state?

The Challenge

We know that the distractions of everyday life, exacerbated by modern technology, can impact mental well being and lead to feelings of social isolation. The arts have long been seen as a means of switching off, escaping the real world and rebalancing the stress of the daily hustle. Vue Cinemas wanted to learn more about what actually happens to the mind and body when we enter the cinema, leave our phones behind, and engross ourselves in an imaginary world.

The Solution

Two groups of volunteers were use to test the cognitive, emotional, and physiological effects of “getting lost” in a movie.  51 participants watched the live-action film Aladdin at the Vue Cinema in Stratford while another 26 participants read the critically acclaimed novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  Both groups completed pre- and post-performance questionnaires and wore biometric sensors to measure their physiological responses

We found that the physiological measures such as heart rate, eletrodermal activity (also known as the galvanic skin response), and even body temperature tracked emotional engagement in the film. Below you can see these measures going up and down with the story line. In fact, the peak response in heart rate happens when Aladdin and Jasmine share their first kiss.

Physiological measures of heart rate (HR), electrodermal activity (EDA), and body temperature responding to the narrative elements of Aladdin.

Our main findings were:

  • Watching the movie lifted participants' mood.  Although they came to the cinema happy, they left even happier after watching Aladdin.
  • While watching the movie, participants heart rates were elevated. The average heart rate of the movie-goers was 75 beats per minute (bpm) where it was 70 bpm for the people reading the novel.
One the left, average participant heart rates while watching Aladdin in the cinema (red) vs reading A Gentleman in Moscow.  In both cases, participants were seated and not physically active so the elevated heart rates reflect engagement with the story. On the right, the bar plots show the amount of time participant heart rates were in what the British Heart Foundation cals the "healthy cardio zone."  It is approximately double when watching the movie.
  • Compared to reading a book, movie-goers spent twice the amount of time (40 mins) in the British Heart Foundation’s healthy heart rate zone
  • Participants’ hearts were more likely to be beating in time with each other as they watched the movie, which is associated with stronger social bonding. Indeed, participants rate their social connectedness to other members of the audience (i.e. strangers) as higher after watching the movie together.
  • The benefits of getting lost in the movie were equally strong for people who come to the movie by themselves as for those who arrive in social groups

So we can relax, notes The Times, as going to cinema also counts as a light workout.

Researchers Involved

Daniel Richardson

Joe Devlin

Jorina von Zimmerman

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