Watching sad films boosts brain's feel-good chemicals, says study

Ben Arnold
UK Movies Writer

The more harrowing or more traumatically weepy the movie, the better we feel, a new study from researchers at Oxford University has found.

It would indeed explain the sometimes inexplicable masochism of watching sad movies, not to mention their enduring appeal at the box office.

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The study finds that endorphins are produced by the brain while watching traumatic movies, the chemicals which make us feel good, reduce pain and increase group bonding.

“The argument here is that actually, maybe the emotional wringing you get from tragedy triggers the endorphin system,” Professor Robin Dunbar, one of the co-authors of the new paper, told The Guardian.

“It has turned out that the same areas in the brain that deal with physical pain also handle psychological pain.”

Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology, tested two groups, showing them different films, one being the harrowing ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’, starring Tom Hardy as a disabled, alcoholic and homeless drug addict, and based on a true story.

Another group were shown two documentaries back-to-back, one on natural history and another on archeology.

After the screenings, the subjects were asked to answer questions about mood, feelings of belonging with the group, and then some were asked to take part in pain tolerance tests.

The results showed that though mood among the test subjects was less positive following the screening of the drama, pain tolerance was increased, as were feelings of bonding with others, both of which are connected to boosted levels of endorphins.

Though this was not the case with all the test subjects.

“This is probably true of everyday life – some people get very moved emotionally by some event that happens while other people look blankly on and say ‘what is the fuss?’” added Dunbar.

The results of the study have now been published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

Image credits: Dimension Films/HBO