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Why do we get lost in a good movie? Suspense heightens our 'tunnel vision,' researchers say

It's when everything falls away and the only thing you can see is the story unfold.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Staff

When we watch a gripping tale in the theaters, are there moments when we lose ourselves to the story? A 2015 study from Georgia Institute of Technology says, yes.


Psychologist and lead author of the study Matt Bezdek explained in a press release:

"Many people have a feeling that we get lost in the story while watching a good movie and that the theater disappears around us. Now we have brain evidence to support the idea that people are figuratively transported into the narrative."

Participants would lay in the MRI machine while they watched scenes from 10 suspenseful movies, which included Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, in addition to Alien and Misery. The movie scenes played in the center of a flashing checkerboard pattern.

The researchers noticed during moments of suspense, attention began to narrow and the checkered pattern fell away. Then during moments of little activity, participants' attention broadened to include their surroundings. Activity in the participants' brains began to shift away from processing general information to only critical pieces during those thrilling moments.

Eric Schumacher, an associate professor in the school of psychology, explained in a press release:

"It's a neural signature of tunnel vision. 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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