Waterloo researcher examines brain activity of horror movie fan

Monday, October 27, 2014

Professor James Danckert is preparing to study the brain activity

Ever wonder why some people can’t get enough of horror movies and others can’t get far enough away from them?

It turns out that the brain of a horror movie fan doesn’t react in the way one would expect when shown images of violence and gore, according to James Danckert, a professor in Waterloo’s Department of Psychology.

When a horror fan was shown gory clips from a movie there was no activation in the brain areas that normally respond to fear, says Danckert. In fact, violent images actually helped focus the brain of the horror fan.

Research done during documentary 

The horror response was demonstrated when Danckert, a cognitive neuroscientist, performed an fMRI experiment for a new documentary film. Tal Zimmerman, the film’s main subject, was placed in the fMRI to scan his brain’s response as he watched a series of alternating 30-second horror and non-horror movie clips.

Zimmerman showed no activation in the amygdala, a brain area that would normally trigger a fear response when horrific images are viewed.

Horror fan calms down with gory film clips

Zimmerman was more anxious about going into the scanner itself. “He calmed down once the horror movie clips started,” said Danckert, and images of violence and gore actually helped focus his mind. “He showed activity in brain regions important for engaging attention, suggesting he was more engaged by the horror clips than the non-horror clips.”

The fMRI, which stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging, is a large cylindrical structure which a person enters on a sliding bed. In simple terms, the scanner detects and graphically depicts changes in blood oxygenation and flow that occur in association with neural stimulation – such as when a subject watches a film.

fMRI brain scans show horror response

While both the horror and non-horror clips shown during the fMRI scanning had common elements such as colour, movement, and voice, the results suggest that images of gore and violence activated a distinct level of engagement for the horror fan. To get his results, Danckert subtracted the brain’s non-horror response from the horror response, leaving brain images that show activity specific to watching horror.

While this is the second documentary film featuring Danckert’s research – the first was on the subject of boredom – he studies several areas of cognitive neuroscience, including research on how people form mental models or representations of the world and how they adapt those models in response to changing information.

Why Horror? premieres Tuesday, October 28th at 9 pm (EST) on Super Channel. The film looks at the global phenomenon of horror movies and why the genre incites such polarized reactions. 

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