Why are you fascinated by science?

: Science: why we are fascinated by films

Cinema is wonderful, but it rarely has anything to do with reality. At least that is what is said over and over again. The Hollywood dream factory, but also films and stories told in general, have always been portrayed as escapism: escape from reality. Clever illusion sellers, it is said suspiciously, supplied us with ideal world locations where we can escape the unreasonable demands of real life for a while. Cinema as a narrative opium for the people. But something is wrong with this thesis. Because cinema and literature by no means merely draw beautiful worlds, nor do they only provide the audience with edifying feelings. What is being told goes to the heart of people like real life - even though they know that everything is just made up and not real. Gradually, researchers are exploring how people's fascination with films and stories can be explained.

The American communication researchers Jane Ebert from Brandeis University and Tom Meyvis from New York University, for example, gave their test subjects a tragic story to read, about a young man dying of cancer. Then they asked the participants if they would feel sadder or less sad if they knew the story was true, and not just made up. Almost everyone was convinced that a true story would take them more seriously. But that turned out to be a fallacy. Because now the researchers presented the same story to other test subjects and sold it in advance to some as fictional, others as true. The result: It made no difference - the story made the participants equally sad, regardless of whether they thought it was real or fictional.

Regardless of whether it is real or made up

This was also the case when Ebert and Meyvis changed the medium and showed a moving film, which they in turn announced either as a documentary or as a drama. If the film ran without a break, it made no difference whether the participants thought the plot was real or fictional: they were so captivated by the events that they could not help but be emotionally involved. The supposedly fictional film was only rated as slightly less disturbing than the supposedly real one when the researchers built small interruptions into the screening - probably because the audience had the opportunity to distance themselves internally during the breaks according to the motto “No reason to to get excited, everything is just thought out, no one really had to suffer! ”Without this conscious distancing, stories are initially experienced reality for us.

Our experience apparatus is probably even designed in such a way that we automatically translate events - regardless of whether they are real or fictitious - into stories, i.e. give them a plot. “People wrongly assume that their attitudes, beliefs and actions are influenced more by facts than by fictions,” writes American social psychologist Melanie Greenwald, who has been researching the astonishing psychological power of narrative material for many years. “But we are actually drawn into narratives, both factual and fictional.” Data, numbers, statistics leave us cold. Only when they are embedded in a story do they acquire an emotional meaning.

Draw personalized stories

Politicians know that. Journalists as well. Mary Beth Oliver of Pennsylvania State University recently confirmed what has long been part of their tools of the trade in a study: Personalize your story, it arouses the empathy of the readers and keeps them engaged. The researchers found that articles about the elderly, migrants, or prisoners were not only more popular with test readers, but were also more effective once the statements were tied to a personal fate. The participants who had read such a story then showed more helpfulness towards the respective clientele than those who had been presented with a pure fact report.

What does a story have to bring along if it succeeds? In a tremendous amount of hard work, researchers from the ESCP Europe Business School in London and the University of Maastricht have bundled the data sets from 76 studies on the effectiveness of narratives. Tom van Laer's team came to the conclusion that three criteria are decisive for how strongly a story captivates its readers or viewers: It should come up with concise characters, whose motives and mental life you empathize with and with whom you can can identify. Your plot, i.e. the sequence of events, should stimulate the imagination. The key to this are well-crafted scenes that come visually before your eyes. Third, it depends on plausibility. Even the most fantastic story should come across as real, realistic, believable, not necessarily believable in a scientific sense, but subjectively convincing.

Van Laer and his colleagues also found that it is not just about the story how much it captivates someone - it also depends on the person who lets himself be captivated. It works better if that person is already familiar with the subject and genre of the narrative and does not have to venture into new territory. It is also easier for people to immerse themselves in a story who are already focused on the subject, educated - and female. It's true: women are generally better able to empathize with others - even if these people are fictional characters.

Second hand emotions

The question remains, what benefit people from identifying with invented characters. The fact is: if you empathize with a figure, you also feel what it is feeling. They are, so to speak, second-hand emotions. It is no coincidence that one speaks of emotional cinema. Movies - and stories - allowed us to experience strong emotions in safe places, says Michigan State University media impact researcher John Sherry. Most of the time we experience this state as pleasant, even when it is sad feelings that overwhelm us.

In a current study, Asmir Gracanin and his team at the University of Tilburg showed 60 viewers two proven, moving films: Roberto Benigni's tragic comedy “Life is beautiful” and “Hachiko”, a tear-moving film about a dog that belongs to his Loyal to the Lord beyond death. 28 of the participants cried during the performance. Unlike the 32 who hadn't shed tears, their mood went through a violent up and down after the film experience, or better: up and down. Immediately after the credits, they were pretty down. But after just 20 minutes their mood was back to the same level as before the film, and after 90 minutes they felt even better than before: Somehow, the surge of painful compassion that the film triggered had a kind of therapeutic effect.

But empathy is not the most important thing for everyone in (head) cinema. This is what Annabel Nijhof and Roel Willems from Radboud University in Nijmegen discovered when they scanned the brains of their test subjects with a magnetic resonance scanner while they listened to various audio book stories. The neural activation patterns indicated that some participants were anxious to understand the main characters' intentions and feelings. For others, the action was more important. They too were emotionally involved, but their brains were even more occupied with visualizing what was happening to the actors where and how. So they were right in the middle of the action.

Focused like a laser

Another study demonstrates that the great masters of suspense cinema, which leaves viewers floating in uncertainty, can focus their viewers' attention at key points in the plot like a laser. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology showed their subjects thrillers such as Hitchcock's “The Invisible Third”, Ridley Scott's “Alien” or Rob Reiner's “Misery”. In moments when the alien bit its abdominal wall or the spray plane attacks Cary Grant, who is fleeing into the cornfield, the viewer's visual perception narrowed to a tunnel: the brain feverishly processed what was happening in the center of their field of vision - and ignored it completely what's happening on the sidelines, let alone beyond the screen. "The brain," says Eric Schumacher, who is also involved in the study, "steered you directly into the story."

Stories leave measurable traces in the brain that last at least one night. Neuroscientists at Emory University led by Gregory Berns gave their test subjects 30 pages each of Robert Harris ’thriller“ Pompeji ”to read over nine evenings. As it turned out, what was happening in the novel haunted readers the next morning. The researchers recorded continued activity in the voice-processing left temporal lobe. In motor brain areas, too, the nerve cells increasingly came into contact with one another, just as if the participants were still mentally in the protagonist's body and followed him in his movements.

No wonder that as readers or viewers, even during the breaks, we are excited to see how things will continue, for example with a TV series we trust. When the last season ends and no new one is shot, the fans mourn their fictional companions as if they were real friends. Their displeasure is particularly great when a series ends openly or ambiguously, like David Lynch's cult series "Twin Peaks" at the time. Christel Russell from the American University in Washington attributes this to the fact that such stories remain in the psyche as an open form - they are somehow unfinished like a to-do list that has not yet been fully completed and therefore do not let you go. Only a clear ending gives a story unity. Only then, says Russell, will fans be able to let go of their beloved characters and mourn their passing away like a friend's “after a life well lived”.