Watching Alfred Hitchcock gives us ‘tunnel vision’

"Many people have a feeling that we get lost in the story while watching a good movie and that the theater disappears around us," says Matt Bezdek. "Now we have brain evidence to support the idea that people are figuratively transported into the narrative." (Credit: North by Northwest/MGM)

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

A new study shows how the Master of Suspense affects audiences’ brains. Researchers measured brain activity while people watched clips from Hitchcock and other suspenseful films.

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

checkerboard pattern around edges of a movie scene
As the movies played in the center of the screen, a flashing checker board pattern appeared around the edges. (Credit: Georgia Tech)

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

Ebb and flow of brain activity

For the study, published in the journal Neuroscience, 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.

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

When 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.

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.

Into the story

“It’s a neural signature of tunnel vision,” says Eric Schumacher, associate professor 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.”

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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, researchers tested the idea that suspense temporarily suppresses the neuron’s usual response.

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.

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.

Source: Georgia Tech