Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, said that “everyone enjoys a good murder …provided he is not the victim”. It seems he was right because, decades later, we’re witnessing the massification of the genre of the thriller, which is increasingly present on all platforms. This leads to the inevitable question: why are thrillers so intriguing?
Naturally, a story that’s full of mystery and suspense keeps you on the edge of your seat. However, beyond the effects that geniuses such as Seven, True Detective, or Vertigo (to name but a few) may provoke, the truth is that suspense generates a series of universal changes in your brain.
How thrillers influence your brain
According to Matthew Bezdeck, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology (USA), our brains suffer from a kind of tunnel vision when we see that the protagonist of a series or movie is in danger. This is the first of the changes that our brain chemistry experiences. “In the visual cortex, the neurons that process what happens on the screen go into a boil, while those that receive peripheral information go numb” claims the researcher.
The second change is related to our attention. In Bezdeck’s words, “the ventral web, the flywheel that spins to decide where we direct our attention, becomes more active”. We might speak of a silence that’s generated in our neural networks, so the suspense makes our brains turn to the movie. We escape, forget our surroundings, and the only thing that interests us is knowing what’ll happen to the protagonists.
The last change that Bezdeck talks about concerns the activation of our brains. In fact, it appears that watching suspense movies is anything but a passive activity. “In one study, my colleagues and I found that patients mentally participate in suspense scenes: they solve problems on behalf of the characters” Bezdeck explains. He suggests that viewers “redraw how the events could have happened differently and criticize or praise what the protagonists do”.
Empathy with the characters
Although it’s a phenomenon that should occur in any good story, when you see a thriller, you tend to empathize with the characters. In these types of movies, the threat and suspense are on the surface, which makes you more involved in what’s happening. In effect, your neurons work through the conflict and help you put yourself in the shoes of the characters, just as you’d do with people in real life.
Another aspect to take into account is the feeling of threat, something that’s really common in any thriller. In fact, although it sounds paradoxical, fear and uncertainty can make you feel great doses of pleasure. For instance, when you see a character between a rock and a hard place, your amygdala interprets that you’re in danger. Then when it’s all over, the rest of your brain puts things into context, understanding that you just escaped a dangerous situation.
Your brain then releases substances that generate a feeling of reward. Therefore, both terror and suspense can become sources of endless pleasure. We must also take into account the individual profile of each viewer. For instance, some people especially like risks, since their brains have a greater number of receptors for dopamine. Therefore, it’s hardly strange that they experience more enjoyment from the shocks they see on screen.
Bystander mind control
Although we might assume that the vast majority of screenwriters and filmmakers don’t understand even the most basic notions of neuroscience, they certainly know how to handle the mind of the viewer. At least, this is what Bezdeck claims. Indeed, he states that, albeit intuitively, “great filmmakers know how to control the viewer’s mind even without understanding the biological mechanisms behind it”.
We must also take into account the advances that have been made in recent years in narrative matters. Nowadays, not even the protagonists are necessarily protected from death or assassination. As shows like Game of Thrones have shown, any character loved by viewers can end up dying a horrible death. This means that the intrigue of the thriller has grown, providing our brains with huge amounts of endorphins and dopamine.
It certainly seems that Hitchcock’s claim was true. Indeed, in the case of thrillers, intrigue plays a fundamental role in getting our brains completely involved in the storyline.
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