Why Movies Make Us Feel Good

by Mira

There are scientific explanations for why we like movies, why films and books induce a state of well-being. It has to do in part with mirror neurons and the brain chemical oxytocin

I'm an avid movie-goer. I have always sought movies for their art, and, yet, lately, I couldn't help but notice that I go to see flicks because I like the feeling of relaxation (combined with some sort of high) that I get after watching a movie on the big screen.

At first I thought this feeling had to do with the all-enveloping music you get at the cinema, with the fact that it's all so big and the experience all-encompassing, with all that beauty displayed in grand manner on the screen, with all that acting, the dialogue, the light, and everything that makes (some) films work.

Then I heard about mirror neurons. And later, about how oxytocin is released when you watch a movie. I will certainly be reading more about all that. Here's what I know so far.

Catharsis in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, people flocked to amphitheatres to see plays by the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. All big tragedies, involving moral conundrums and tragic flaws (hamartias, from hamartanein, "to err, miss the mark") that ultimately decide the outcome. Tragedy, indeed. Then there was Aristophanes for some comedy and so on. Either way, whether they saw a tragedy or a comedy, spectators were in for catharsis ("purification," "purgation"). Which means they left home a little happier, a little less encumbered by the baggage of life – and ready to take on this baggage again the next day.

It's clear from the survival of theatre itself that catharsis works. It was also clear to me that going to a good movie was not only enjoyment of an art form for the ways art can delight, but also for the way it can provide a parenthesis in time in which you forget about the stress of this and that, for that feeling of relaxation and happiness you feel when you go home, a little less burdened. In fact, light as a feather sometimes. So I could attest to the fact that catharsis is real, in some way or another. But I didn't know how it all worked at brain level. The question was at the back of my mind though.

Mirror Neurons

Then I learned about mirror neurons. Other people knew about them since the nineties. I found out about them only a few years ago. It goes like this: whether you do an action yourself, or watch someone else do it, you have a set of neurons, called mirror neurons, which can't tell the difference. Isn't that amazing stuff? (Scientists later wondered whether autistic children can't feel empathy because their mirror neurons are malfunctioning.)

So whether you kiss someone or see that movie heroine being swept off her feet, your mirror neurons go through the motions. They also help you gain skills by watching other people work on a project. It may also explain how kids pick up language, by first mirroring in their brains what their parents say. I'll have to read more about this, since mirror neurons are essentially motor neurons. It's been shown, however, that they have more to do with goals than with actions.

If you like the mirror neurons, wait till you hear one other celebrity character of neuroscience: the hormone oxytocin.

Meryl Streep and Clinton Eastwood
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

The Bridges of Madison County (1995) DVD

A fabulous romantic movie

But Before We Get to Oxytoccin

Here's a little about a number of brain chemicals involved in the stages of love

You may know the theory that love lasts three years. Frédéric Beigbeder actually wrote a book about it in 1997, and gave it this very same title: L’amour dure trois ans. In this book, he discusses the main hormones and neurotransmitters responsible for falling in love, being attracted to the person you're having sex with, and feeling in love.

One of these is oxytocin, popularly known as the "hugging hormone." Oxytocin makes us care for the relationship and pay attention to it. It makes us feel more sympathetic and open up more. When you fall in love your brain releases quite a lot of it. Oxytocin levels are also increased in childbirth, when you nurse your baby, and when you bond with your partner and friends – which also makes this chemical known as "the hormone of forgetting oneself."

Love Actually (2003)

One of the Best Romantic Dramas of Recent Years
Bill Nighy
Love Actually (2003)
Love Actually (2003)

Dopamine, the "pleasure neurotransmitter," which apparently makes doing cocaine feel so good, is also released. According to some scientists, there's not so much serotonin, "the feel-good neurotransmitter" / "the happy (or happiness) hormone" at this stage. Which is not surprising. Serotonin helps you sleep well, be balanced emotionally, and concentrate – all of which can be severely impaired when we fall in love.

At this lust stage, there's also, of course, a good deal of estrogen and testosterone involved. And sex pheromones, which are ectohormones (hormones acting outside the body that secretes them).

Serotonin comes into play later, when we've settled into the relationship and the arms of our partner, when the rush of those three years is gone.

Other researchers have a completely different view of what the more important lust and love hormones and neurotransmitters are and when they are released in greater quantities. Helen Fisher, for instance, author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (2005), talks about testosterone and estrogen in the lust stage, which can last up to a few months, adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin in the attraction stage (this is rather confusing, I think, but she does say that these stages can occur in any order), and oxytocin and vasopressin in the attachment stage. Vasopressin, which has as main functions retention of water in the body and constriction of blood vessels, is also studied for its roles in social behavior and sexual motivation.

Movies -- The Best Way to Boost Your Oxytocin Levels

Prof. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist, published this year (2013) a book called The Moral Molecule. This molecule is none other than the chemical oxytocin. This hugging hormone is, it seems, part of what makes us compassionate, trusting, willing to communicate more with our partner and other people. It's released even when you hug a stranger.

The best way to increase oxytocin release, according to Prof. Paul Zak? Watching a powerful emotional movie. It makes our oxytocin levels go up to 47% higher. And he should know. He's been measuring oxytocin levels everywhere, taking blood samples from people involved in various activities: attending a wedding, playing football, etc.

So if you want to feed your brain more oxytocin, and improve your health (cardiovascular health, immune system) and mood with it (you'll feel more optimistic, for one), go hug someone. And then go see a movie.

You can also try dancing, doing some extreme sports with someone, or, if not, working out with a friend. Even Facebook helps. But there's nothing like a good movie.

Updated: 12/27/2015, Mira
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Mira on 02/06/2016

You may have a point there about catharsis, but you have to remember the chorus in Greek plays, which does induce a certain state of mind. Thank you for your comment!

DerdriuMarriner on 02/04/2016

Mira, Thank you for such an interesting, relevant share!
So mirror neurons, oxytocin, and serotonin may explain why audiences like really well done cook-along and exercise-along shows, right?
But in terms of catharsis, I'm not sure that's what I always experience in regard to some of the ancient Greek plays.

Mira on 12/16/2014

Glad you enjoyed this article, Shraddha! I, too, learn a lot of things on Wizzley.

WriterArtist on 12/15/2014

People engage in things like gardening, meditating , walking and other hobbies for relaxing. Great to know that watching movies is also relaxing, now I can watch them without any guilt. Sometimes I watch back to back movies that makes me sedentary. Also learnt about mirror neurons which is something new to me. Reading articles on Wizzley is really helping me to know new stuff, products and technology.

Mira on 12/14/2013

Right! I'm all for movies and hugs myself :-).

sheilamarie on 12/14/2013

Fascinating stuff! I think I'll go watch a movie now and give someone a hug.

Mira on 12/09/2013

Not just talk! ;-)

Guest on 12/09/2013

Mira, I think enjoyment of movies does trace back to how our brains are working, so it's interesting the way you wove the strands of mirror neurons and oxytocin into your article! Oxytocin opens the heart and can cancel out negative, ego-based self talk.

Mira on 12/09/2013

Hi Emma, I agree that the art of movies has so many components. If we enjoy them (the music, the fashion, the architecture, the superb photography of some movies, etc.), there's a lot to be enjoyed. I wish I hadn't focused so much on mirror neurons and oxytocin here. When I wrote the article, I figured we appreciate movies for many reasons, but we feel good because of how our brain works. But our brain reacts to beauty, too, and to things we resonate with and came to love more and more as we learned more about them, so there's more to the story, as you say. And yes, knowledge of human psychology and other cultures, etc. is another thing. We learn so much from movies, in so many ways.

Guest on 12/09/2013

Mira, The still of John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing is a favorite movie dance routine for me.
In addition to the plot and characters, there's so much to notice in a movie, such as architecture, fashion, music, etc.
Movies can be entertaining, enlightening, and so much more, as you show here. And it's great that you wove into this framework mirror neurons and oxytocin. Vicarious knowledge and feel-good feelings definitely can be benefits of watching good movies.

You might also like

Hilary and Jackie (1998): A Hugely Engrossing Film

Hilary and Jackie is a powerful film about the tragic life of prodigy cellist...

Conviction (2010). Great Acting from Hilary Swank and Sam Rock...

This is an incredibly simple yet powerful movie based on a true story of a si...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...