Your Brain on Stories – Neurocinematics

What goes on in your head when you watch a movie goes deeper than you think.

Last night I was flipping through an old college notebook and came across this note from one of my Smith psych courses:

Romantic movie – 10% increase in progesterone

Fight scene – 30% increase in testosterone (for men with high level baseline)

Interesting, right? That the subject of a scene could change your physiology? Well, hold on to your seats, there’s more. A lot more.

Meet Neurocinema

Neurocinematics, a close cousin of neuromarketing, studies the brain and physiological activity of movie viewers in real-time through fMRI, EEG, eye-tracking, and galvanic skin response. According to Kevin Randall the studios aren’t talking, but neuromarketing firms have revealed a little about what their clients are using it for now (optimizing movie trailers, vetting scripts, and helping to select cast) and what they speculate neurocinematics will be used for in the near future. Just one radical idea posits that movies in the future may be dynamic – personalized and changing on the fly based on the viewer response. Your very own movie experience based on how your brain and body is responding.

Let’s learn a little more about how neurocinematics works, and what better way to do that than with a little movie? Grab your popcorn.


All very sci-fi and bleeding cutting edge and all that, but what can neurocinematics teach us about why stories are so compelling and important in the human experience, and why does it matter?

As the Technology Changes, the Stories Stay the Same

It’s interesting to note that as technology advances, one of the first things we do is create stories with it. Stories have a long history, of course. Cave drawings, dance, song, epic poetry, plays, the printing press, radio, television, cinema, blogs, YouTube, 3-D…the list, as you know, is endless. Why is it that stories have played such a central role throughout our entire history? Is it to teach and learn? To express ourselves? To entertain and be entertained? To experience a unified mind? Theories overlap and conflict, but I suspect that as we learn about how the brain processes stories we’ll see that these things are not separate at all. That learning and entertainment and drama and emotions and making sense of our own minds are all interlinked.  We’ve already learned, contrary to what we thought previously, that we can’t make a decision with logic alone.

Radical discovery! Paradigm-shifting even. Emotions have taken a backseat to logic for a long period of history. From ancient philosophers to modern scientists the belief has long been that logic is superior to emotion, and if we could only rid ourselves of the base emotions we could elevate humanity.

This same thinking relegated storytelling and consumption to the arts and entertainment category. This same thinking strips funding for the arts before other programs when the budget gets tight. But imagine if storytelling turns out to be as necessary and central as history suggests.

Here’s some of what’s been discovered so far and what it might mean.

Your Brain on Stories

“It’s like you’re there!” Initial studies show that as we view certain activities on-screen, our own brain turns on activity in regions associated with that activity as though we were actually doing what we were viewing. I couldn’t find any articles connecting this to mirror neurons, but it makes sense that they would be involved. It could be that in order to understand what we’re seeing our brain activity needs to correspond, and/or it could mean that we are activating learning processes as we watch.

Emotional stories activate our “love hormone”. According to Paul Zak, an emotional story line is a potent activator of oxytocin and corresponds with feelings of empathy.

Getting volunteers to watch a 5-minute video telling the story of a 4-year-old boy with terminal brain cancer increased oxytocin levels by an average of 47 per cent compared with others who saw an emotionally neutral film about the same boy going to the zoo.

Oxytocin helps us bond with others. Those bonds aren’t just to bring us pleasure for the sake of pleasure, they bring us pleasure to ensure that we DO bond. Bonding has been imperative to our survival as a species.

What’s Next

We’ve only begun to understand what happens in the brain when we watch a movie or consume a story in any format. There’s much more to learn, and the implications are huge, if not controversial. Consider what William Casebeer says:

Casebeer notes that a compelling narrative can seal the resolve of a suicide bomber, and suggests that developing “counter-narrative strategies” could help deter such attackers. “It might be that understanding the neurobiology of a story can give us new insights into how we prevent radicalisation and how we prevent people from becoming entrenched in the grip of a narrative that makes it more likely that they would want to intentionally cause harm to others,”

What is clear is that stories are indeed as important as their central role throughout our history suggests. So yes, tell your story, and tell it well.

This post was inspired by the #usblogs theme: What Can We Learn From the Movies?


  1. Anonymous says

    “We’ve already learned, contrary to what we thought previously, that we can’t make a decision with logic alone.” This is wonderful. We’re finally shedding some of the scrum of “the enlightenment”–not to say that there is wonder in logic, but movies are about shelving logic for a while. Stories put logic into context.

    Neurocinematics? What a fringe idea. Love it.

    Here’s my 2 pennies: I think the language of neuroscience is a wonderful story too. It takes more research than a Jodi Piccoult novel, but the story of our minds is fascinating. We have graph/picture, study, a whole vocabulary (what is “galvanic skin response” anyway?), and a “story grammar.”

    Philosophically, we are moving from ‘The Truman Show’ and to ‘Awakenings’ (I hope).

  2. says

    I love this take on the “What we can learn from the movies” theme (one of the best things about #USBlogs is how many different directions we can explore from the same starting point!) Stories amplify and perpetuate our cultures and can help to change mindsets. Compelling Narrative is what we need from our leaders and our teachers to help us engage, trust and act differently. LOVED this post. Jennifer – you are quite brilliant… That is all!

    • says

      I’d like to see a return to stories with purpose, rather than stories being only relegated to the “frivolous” category of entertainment.

      Thank you for the compliment. :) And thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  3. Foster Ethan7 says

    Really you have done a good job. The written style is very prompt and the
    highly practical manners. So fruitful for us. I have been reading the articles
    on this site for sometime. This is my first comment. Your blog has been very
    useful for me and it provides very good content and too informative, Thanks.
    eeg brain

  4. David Metcalfe says

    “We’ve already learned, contrary to what we thought previously, that we can’t make a decision with logic alone.

    Radical discovery! Paradigm-shifting even. Emotions have taken a backseat to logic for a long period of history. From ancient philosophers to modern scientists the belief has
    long been that logic is superior to emotion, and if we could only rid ourselves of the base emotions we could elevate humanity.”

    I think there’s a deeper thread here that needs to be investigated, this seems to be based on an erroneous concept of ancient philosophy (which is much more diverse than an either/or distinction between logic and emotion) and also modern science (which again is not an either/or situation except at the level of popular media).  The varied expressions of the Illuminationist school alone, both in it’s Islamic and Christian forms (St. Augustine, Suhrawardi, Ibn Arabi, etc), run completely contrary to this. And looking at Eastern philosophy in any of it’s expositions this is a completely false dichotomy.

    Take for instance the fact that Newton was a very dedicated, practicing alchemist, or that one of the most developed Medieval scientists, Albert Magus, wrote extensive treatises on natura magia (Natural Magic).

    On a personal level we have to recognize that this concept of logic vs. emotion already leads us to a false conclusion. This is very dangerous ground, especially when we’re talking about giving corporations and monied interests an open door policy to our brains. I personally don’t want my neurochemistry being massaged any more than it has to be by someone who wants to either distract me with entertainment, lead me on some crusade, or get into my wallet. 

    I’ve noticed a lot of the media around this is very positive and laudatory, and there is not enough questioning of the very baseline ethical violations inherent in these studies. This is not something to be taken lightly, especially with the ubiquity of today’s communication technology.

    Now that DARPA is taking an active interest in this subject it has been ‘weaponized’ and we all need to take a serious look at the implications of that fact.

    • says

      David, you bring up good points that I think about often. I’m in process of writing my personal/work manifesto which should be live on the site within the month. In the meantime, I can’t help but be fascinated by and curious about the findings of neuroscience, neuromarketing, behavioral economics and other such disciplines. All science, all invention, all discoveries are subject to positive or evil applications and I can’t control that. 

      I actually think it’s quite important that as long as these studies are being done that the results aren’t kept behind corporate walls. Small businesses, socially responsible businesses, non-profits, and CONSUMERS can all benefit from this information as well. I personally have been made much more aware of the ways in which I spend. Not that I was a big spender anyway and since I don’t watch television or read magazines I’m slightly less exposed to big advertising, but to the extent that I do make purchases or even feel longing, I’ve learned about many subtle ways in which I hadn’t even considered I’m vulnerable. 

      As for the complexities of philosophy, agreed. However, I was speaking more to the popular sentiment which is evidenced all across popular culture and literature. In this way it’s paradigm shifting. 

      • David Metcalfe says

        Part of my focus in school was cognitive science/philosophy of mind, and I share your fascination.

        “It’s quite important that as long as these studies are being done that the results aren’t kept behind corporate walls.” – So very true. And you are right, if the technology is there it’s going to be used, there’s nothing we can do except be vigilant.

        “I personally have been made much more aware on the ways in which I spend” – This is a great point, if we, as citizens and consumers, take these discoveries into account it definitely does help mitigate the ability for these things to be used against us.

        “As for the complexities of philosophy” – another good point, it is admittedly difficult to stuff the entire history of human thought into a blog post. ; )

        Thanks for helping me think this through. I’m looking forward to your personal/work manifesto.

        • says

          David, thanks for taking a moment to come back and expand on your thoughts and comments. And not only can consumer awareness about the results of these studies help mitigate the possibilities of manipulation, but it can also help consumers, policy-makers, and even businesses IMPROVE things. What comes to mind is a recent project by MIT students to invent a “proverbial” wallet that would help the owner feel immediate physical effects of their spending vs. saving. The movement to “plastic” money is “dangerous” because as we spend we are literally too physically removed from the transfer. Using plastic removes or lowers the pain of loss (loss aversion) that we experience when we trade actual objects (in this case money). Armed with this knowledge the students came up with different wallets that would give physical feedback based on how much remained in a person’s bank account.

          There was the wallet that became increasingly harder to open as the bank balance lowered. Or the wallet that inflated or deflated in correspondence to bank balances and not only notified the owner of the wallet, but could also be a signal to potential mates (ha!). It’s the featured video on my YouTube channel here if you want to check it out. 

          There’s much potential for good in these fields, and I want to find those opportunities. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *