Isn’t a little weird that people pay money to watch other people endure tragedy after tragedy on the big screen? (Here’s looking at you, Les Mis.) All these years later, I’m still scratching my head over the fact that watching Titanic for the eighteenth time in six months was considered “normal” when the movie first hit theaters. But turns out tragedy addicts aren’t so odd after all. In fact, they might have a good reason for queuing up for a cry-fest, and it all comes down to neurobiology.
A lot goes on in our brains when we watch sad, emotional, or tragic films, and what’s surprising is that a lot of this brain activity actually promotes feelings of happiness, closeness in our relationships, and a sense of community. Say what, now?
What’s the Deal?
When we sit down to watch a movie, we activate portions of our brain that process visual and sensory inputs in both hemispheres Film excerpts shown to specifically elicit various affects lead to overlapping activation foci in a large set of symmetrical brain regions in males. Karama S., Armony J., Beauregard M., McConnell Brain Imaging Center, Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, PLoS One. 2011;6(7):e22343. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022343. Epub 2011 Jul 27 A psychophysiological investigation of laterality in human emotion elicited by pleasant and unpleasant film clips, Kaviani H., Kumari V., Wilson G.D., Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, University of Bedfordshire, Luton, UK, Annals of General Psychiatry. 2010 Nov 25;9:38. doi: 10.1186/1744-859X-9-38. “Neurocinematic” research (a relatively new term) finds that on a basic level, our brains are able to process the basic plot and storyline of a film in similar ways. After that, the ways our brains process information related to the emotional aspects of the film becomes pretty individualized.
The parts of our brains responsible for the regulation of emotional processing are definitely affected while watching films, but the ways they’re affected vary based on a couple of factors, including the narrative of the film (funny/sad/neutral/etc.), the individual person viewing the film, and maybe even gender. One study found that women are more likely than men to respond to negative emotional stimuli in films (such as heartbreak, death, despair, and tears), while men are more likely to respond to positive emotional stimuli (like when the bad guy finally gets what’s coming to him) Sex differences in brain activation to emotional stimuli: a meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies, Stevens J.S., Hamann S., Department of Psychology, Emory University, 36 Eagle Row, Atlanta, GA, Neuropsychologia. 2012 Jun;50(7):1578-93. Maybe this explains why the love triangle in The Notebook destroys me every time!
But even though our emotional responses to films aren't entirely uniform, research suggests that watching tragic movies might actually make us feel happier across the board. Huh? There are a couple of possible explanations for this phenomenon. One is that watching sad films prompts us to get reflective and feel grateful for the ways our lives and relationships are better than those of the characters on screen (“Hey, at least I’m not lying frozen on a board in the ocean while my boyfriend drowns!”). This comparative reflection actually mirrors a therapeutic technique in which patients are asked to imagine someone in a worse situation in order to gain perspective on challenges in their own life, says Greatist Expert and Clinical Psychologist Jessica Magidson.
Other research suggests it’s not just about turning inward — there might be some serious neurochemical involvement in our happy feelings post-tragedy viewing. According to Paul Zak, Greatist Expert, Professor, and Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, sad films make us feel empathy for others through the release of oxytocin. When we empathize with other people (even fictional ones on screen), our brain releases oxytocin, which engages brain circuits that prompt us to care about others. Exercising empathy makes us better able to connect to the real people around us, says Zak — both right after viewing a sad film (in the form of hugs and shared tears) and later on, by training our oxytocin system. These feelings of connection just might explain why we can't stop watching films that end in tragedy or sadness (and nominating them for awards, to boot).
Is It Legit?
Seems like it. Apparently our brains have a habit of turning us happy in times of sadness. For one thing, survey data shows a high percentage of men and women report feeling better as a result of crying (arguably our prime indicator of sadness). But it’s not just about catharsis. Research has found that when people watch emotional scenes together, their brains sometimes “tick” collectively (in other words, they “sync up” with other viewers’ brains) Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision, Hasson U., Nir Y., Levy I., et. al. Department of Neurobiology, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel. Science. 2004 Mar 12;303(5664):1634-40. This brain meld may prompt feelings of closeness and community, adding to the ironic “feel good” effect of heart-wrenching films Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision, Hasson U., Nir Y., Levy I., et. al. Department of Neurobiology, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel. Science. 2004 Mar 12;303(5664):1634-40.
Bottom line: We may be drawn to sad movies because we tend to feel happier after watching them. These good feelings may result from feeling grateful for the circumstances in our lives or from feeling connected to other people (or both). Perhaps it’s time to finally hit "play" on that sad film in the Netflix queue!
Do you enjoy watching sad films? Why or why not? Share in the comments below!