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Why We Cry at the Movies

We spoke to Dr. Jeffrey Zacks, a professor of psychology who's written a book about our neurological responses to movies.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I find hard to understand why people enjoy Love Actually so much, let alone why some shed tears of passionate sorrow every time they watch it. Mind you, we've all cried over something cinematic (me, during 12 Years a Slave). We've all fallen in love with an individual performance (Marion Cotillard, every time). And we've all shaken our fists at a bad guy (fuck you forever, Warden Samuel Norton).


So cinema clearly has some sort of sensational ability to affect every one of our emotions, and we're pretty much all susceptible. For this reason, we might conclude that we process the events we see on the big screen in the exact same way as real-life goings-on. This is one of the big ideas explored in Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, a new book by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks, professor of psychology at Washington University in St Louis.

As well as asking why we sometimes find it hard to distinguish between fiction and reality, suggesting that we can't pinpoint the precise "sources" of our memories, Zacks explains how our brains had evolved to their current form well before cinema was around. This basically means that we're processing these fictional narratives now with the same brains our pre-technology ancestors were using to observe woolly mammoths in the distance 50,000 years ago—a fact that can go some way to explaining the psychology behind why we react so enthusiastically to films.

This idea formed the basis of my conversation with Zacks when I gave him a call last week.

VICE: When did you first start thinking about the neuroscience of film-watching? And what inspired you to write this book?
Jeffrey Zacks: In my day job at my lab we study how people understand and remember everyday activity, and we have serious purposes for doing that. We're interested in diagnosing and assisting people with brain diseases and brain injuries, and improving educational interfaces.


To do all of that serious stuff we started showing people movies, starting with simple little homemade movies that we made ourselves, measuring their behavior and their brain activity while they watched them. When I first started doing it we were trying to make anti-movies—movies that were as un-movie-like as possible, as much like real life as possible. But I quickly realized that the movie-ness of them was super-interesting, and we've increasingly become interested in that side of the experience.

One idea that fascinates me is that of the "mirror" principle, and how this might account for how we get so emotionally wrapped up in films and mimic the emotions we see on the screen, like crying excessively during mushy romantic dramas. Could you elaborate on this concept?
That's an important one for me, because in real life I'm a pretty mellow, stoic person, but I can catch myself crying at movies that are just dumb movies—and it doesn't even have to be a good one. I'm not alone; I meet people all the time who tell me exactly the same thing unprompted. So one part of the mechanism behind that is this "mirroring" or mimetic component, and it's really powerful. If you see somebody doing something, you are prone to performing a matching action.

Now, there's another process that's happening at the same time, and sometimes they point in the same direction, sometimes in different directions, and that's that you're also prone to doing an action that had been successful in the past in such a situation.


So if someone reaches out to shake your hand, if they reach out with their right hand, mirroring might have you reaching out with your left hand, which would be the mirror image of it. But you've got a lot of practice that things go better if you reach out with your right hand and shake hands with them. So those are two systems often racing to compete, but both of them have the result of producing a response in your body. And then once that response is produced in your body, it's a response that's associated with an emotion program, and that emotion program tends to come online.

So are we actually experiencing sadness in such scenarios, or is it a sort of post hoc thing, in that we adopt these physical features—such as crying—and only then become sad as a result?
It's totally real, but what you just said is totally right. William James wrote 115 years ago that we think that we sweat because we're afraid and that we cry because we're sad, but it's just as true that we're afraid because we sweat and that we're sad because we cry.

We think that the kind of primary thing in an emotion is the subjective label that we give it. But emotions are these integrated programs: They involve brain systems and peripheral systems, and behavior, and subjective experience. And it's all one thing.

What kind of experiments and studies have you looked at that might back up this idea in relation to film?
One experiment done by colleagues elsewhere basically sought to evoke emotion programs by getting people to adopt the physical poses associated with those emotions without realizing that they're adopting an emotion-related pose.


So I can tell you to do something like hold a pencil between your teeth. Put it so it's pointing left and right and hold it between your teeth. And it turns out that that forces you to pose your muscles into the form of a smile. But nobody thinks about that as smiling. But sure enough, if you do that for a while, and we ask you how you're feeling or how much you like a movie, you feel happier and you rate the experience as more pleasant.

How have filmmakers honed techniques to induce such emotionally intense and authentic reactions, and what are some examples of such techniques?
The main principle is that they can take the range of stimulation that we experience in natural life and just exaggerate it. It's intuitive that if I'm seeing someone else emoting, smiling, or crying, that can have a bigger effect on me if it's one person who's physically closer to me than if it's a face in a crowd of a thousand.

Just think about it: normally when we're interacting with people and someone starts crying, if it gets too intense then we'll both tend to look away. But in a film you can have someone break down and just keep a close-up on their face, and have them 20ft tall, staring at you, crying. And filmmakers will do that. Of course that's going to tug at our heartstrings. What they're doing is exaggerating that facial aspect way outside the range that we'd experience in real life.

At the same time, they're able to use editing and sound and music in a way that's congruent with what we're seeing in the facial aspect. You can't underestimate the power of music to produce these emotional effects.

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