The movies of Alfred Hitchcock have made palms sweat and pulses race for more than 65 years.

But researchers have now learned how the Master of Suspense affects audiences’ brains by measuring brain activity while people watched clips from Hitchcock and other suspenseful films.

Alfred Hitchcock

Why Alfred Hitchcock grabs your attention

During high suspense moments, the brain narrows what people see and focuses their attention on the story. During less suspenseful moments of the film clips, viewers devote more attention to their surroundings.

“Many people have a feeling that we get lost in the story while watching a good movie and that the theater disappears around us,” said Matt Bezdek, the Georgia Institute of Technology postdoctoral psychology researcher who led the study. “Now we have brain evidence to support the idea that people are figuratively transported into the narrative.”

In the study, participants lay in an MRI machine and watched scenes from 10 suspenseful movies, including Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” as well as “Alien” and “Misery.” As the movies played in the center of the screen, a flashing checker board pattern appeared around the edges.

The researchers discovered an ebb and flow of brain activity in the calcarine sulcus: the first brain area to receive and process most visual information.

North by Northwest airplaneWhen the suspense grew, brain activity in the peripheral visual processing areas of the calcarine sulcus decreased and activity in the central processing areas increased. For example, during the famous “North by Northwest” scene, the brain narrowed its visual focus as the airplane bore down on Cary Grant. When he hid in the cornfield and suspense decreased, the neural activity reversed course and attention broadened.

>> TV show cancelled or character killed? That sadness is real

Essentially, when suspense is the greatest, our brains shift activity in the calcarine sulcus to increase processing of critical information and ignore the visual content that doesn’t matter.

(Article continues below ad)

Tunnel vision

“It’s a neural signature of tunnel vision,” said Georgia Tech’s Eric Schumacher, an associate professor in the School of Psychology. “During the most suspenseful moments, participants focused on the movie and subconsciously ignored the checker boards. The brain narrowed the participants’ attention, steering them to the center of the screen and into the story.”

The checker board pattern was used because neurons in the calcarine sulcus are typically attracted to that type of movement. By presenting the checker boards at all times, the researchers tested the idea that suspense temporarily suppresses the neuron’s usual response.

>> Is it illegal for a 10-year-old to see PG-13 movies?

The calcarine sulcus wasn’t the only part of the brain sensitive to changes in suspense. The same was true for areas involved in higher-order visual areas involved in grouping objects together based on their color and how they’re moving.

The study was be published in the journal Neuroscience. What is the consequence of increasing processing during moments of high suspense? The researchers have additional research suggesting that it also leads to increased memory of story-related information.


See books created by our team in the Myria shop!


About The Author

The Myria Editors

Myria, originally launched in 1998, strives to deliver more conversation, and less gossip. More intelligence, less eye-rolling. More acceptance, less judgment. And throughout the site: more needle, less haystack. Through life's ups, downs, and everything in between, we want to encourage you, support you, and help guide you. The team behind Myria understands that status updates and selfies never tell the whole story, and that we all have stuff to deal with, and that's nothing you need to hide here. Beyond "been there, done that" - every day, we're still there and still doing it. That's how we know: You've got this.


Original publication date: July 27, 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This
Read previous post:
Picky eater? It’s worse for a kid’s health than you thought

Picky eating among children is a common problem that can result in poor nutrition for kids, family conflict - and...

Close