Sad movies help us bond with those around us - and alleviate pain

Posted on October 7, 2016

“Why on Earth would we waste so much of our time and money going back to novels and films that make us cry?” evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and his team asked at the beginning of the new study. In their previous investigations of group activities like dancing, laughing, and singing, they found that feel-good chemicals called endorphins were released in the brain, leading to increased pain tolerance and stronger bonds between participants. Endorphins are also released when monkeys and other nonhuman primates groom, suggesting that this mechanism has evolved to boost social ties, Dunbar says. Watching a tragic drama unfold in a theater might harness the same system, the researchers hypothesized.

So Dunbar and his colleagues recruited 169 people to watch Stuart: A Life Backwards. This made-for-TV film portrays the experiences of a disabled homeless man who was sexually abused as a child and struggles with lifelong drug use and imprisonment. He ultimately dies by throwing himself in front of a train. Based on a real man’s life, the story is “about as close to pure tragedy as Shakespeare,” Dunbar says. “People were leaving in tears.”

The researchers compared those viewers with a second group of 68 people who watched two rather sedate BBC documentaries: episode one of The Museum of Life—a behind-the-scenes look at the Natural History Museum in London—and Landscape Mysteries “In Search of Irish Gold,” which explores Irish geology and archaeology. Before and after watching the films, all participants took two tests: One measured their sense of belonging or bonding with their fellow audience members. Another was a measure of pain sensitivity, called the Roman chair, which Dunbar says is a well-established proxy for endorphin release. In it, participants brace themselves unsupported in a chairlike stance against a wall until their leg muscles burn painfully. The higher the endorphin level, the longer a person should be able to sustain the posture, Dunbar says.

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Category(s):Relationships & Marriage, Social Anxiety / Phobia

Source material from Science

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