Archive for the ‘Entertainment’ Category

You’re sitting on a beach, the sun beating hot against your back. Your dig your toes into the grainy sand to feel the cool earth beneath the surface. The smell of sunscreen and coconut oil hits your nose, and you listen to the sound of seagulls calling and waves crashing against the shore. An attractive stranger rises from the surf, water flowing down their body, bringing all sorts of possibilities to your mind’s eye. Just as you were losing yourself in your surroundings, “Single Ladies” blares out of your cellphone, jarring you from your romantic reverie. You shut your book with an unwilling sigh and reenter the real world.

When we read a novel, we are transported to another world. Many people think of fiction as an escape from reality, and now there is evidence that phrase isn’t just a metaphor. Researchers have found that when we read a physical description, our brain reacts as if the description on the page  is really happening to us. For instance, in the paragraph above, the words “coconut oil” elicit a response not just from the section of the brain that deals with language, but also the olfactory cortex, the area of the brain that processes smell. Words like “grainy” activate the sensory cortex, which responds to texture. Words involving motion not only activate the motor cortex, but even target the section of it that deals with individual body parts; when you read about digging your toes into the sand, it produces activity in the section of the motor cortex specifically responsible for leg movement.

With the knowledge that our minds blend the difference between fiction and reality, it comes as little surprise to learn that reading novels can impact our social identities. Researchers at University of Buffalo conducted a study where the participants were asked to read a passage from either Twilight or Harry Potter. The researchers then administered a test where participants responded to “me” words (mine, my) and “not me” words (they, theirs), which were linked with “vampire” or “wizard” words on screen. The participants who read the passage from Twilight were more quick to respond to the “me” words when they were associated with “vampire” words, and vice versa. Furthermore, after testing participants’ level of self-identification with those fictional groups, the researchers found that identification with the fictional community provided the same “mood and life satisfaction” as belonging to a real-world group.

I wonder what this research says about the benefits of reading horror stories. Any ideas?


It was a bloody night. The masked serial killer, wielding his weed whacker like a saber, made short work of the teenagers who stumbled into the dilapidated and abandoned cabin. After the last survivor, whose fear for her life made her forget to wear anything but underwear and a torn shirt, ran screaming through the woods, the credits rolled to an eery, instrumental theme. And you left the theater as giddy as a kid who just found his favorite toy under the tree on Christmas morning.

Photo credit
He may be a killer, but no one can judge his commitment to lawn care maintenance.

I think it’s safe to say that getting hacked to bits by a stranger we picked up on the side of the road is a fantasy few of us share. In fact, our sense of safety occupies the second tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, landing one step above our need for food and sleep. So why do so many people spend their spare cash on vicarious thrills? It may be because of a cross in the fear and pleasure controls in the brain.

When we watch a horror movie, the amygdala, the almond-shaped brain structure located in the temporal lobe, is activated as if the events on screen are really happening to us. The amygdala is in charge of processing emotion, including both fear and pleasure. One theory suggests that when scary scenes trigger the amygdala, it responds with the mixed signals of both fear and enjoyment because of its shared circuitry. As if that wiring weren’t complicated enough, fear is also processed through the nucleus accumbens, or the pleasure center of the brain, releasing hormones that make it possible for you to feel both terrified and exhilarated.

But that doesn’t mean that we feel pleasure when involved in a truly dangerous situation. Fortunately for the audience’s blood pressure, the stimuli on screen are also reaching our prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that evaluates danger. While the amygdala and nucleus accumbens are working to process the emotional content of the film, the prefrontal cortex is working to make sure you know that the danger isn’t real, and that the axe-wielding maniac is just a character in a movie.

So when you’re sitting in the movie theater, whispering, “Don’t go in the basement!” to the character on screen, just sit back and let your amygdala enjoy the ride. Your prefrontal cortex will make sure you can still sleep that night.

Welcome to blockbuster season, where we finally get to see the films we’ve heard about all year! The Avengers exploded on the scene with a 207.4 million opening weekend, and has stayed at the top of the box office for the past three weeks. Apparently like many other movie-goers, I have been anxiously looking forward to its arrival since I first heard of its release last year. And since I first caught a hint of its coming at the end of Iron Man II. And since I first saw its trailer, waiting for another movie to play back in January. Come to think of it, I’ve been waiting for this movie to be released for a very long time.

Pictured here: Anxious anticipation.

The Mere Exposure Effect describes the process where introduction to something makes us like it more than if we had never seen it before. It can be true for products, food, and even other people. The more often we are exposed to something, the more we like it and anticipate seeing it again. It’s why songs we were initially ambivalent about grow on us after repeated radio play, and it may also be why movie trailers are such an effective method of advertising.

Movie trailers introduce us to the plot lines and characters before we even commit to seeing the film, giving the audience plenty of chances to decide they like what they see. Just as in the case for The Avengers, we’ve seen the posters, talked about the actors, and discussed the trailer months before the movie is released in theaters. It may even help that so many movies feature characters of a similar archetype (the good cop, the tough career woman, the drunken hero). We’ve been exposed to these characters over and over again, just in different formats. Perhaps studios realize that certain characters are going to sell a film, because we’ve already grown to like them in a different movie every couple of years.

This beautiful career woman is too busy for a relationship, but will the unconventional stranger she meets convince her to make time for love?

There is a catch that filmmakers need to be careful of, though—this effect only works with limited exposure. If we are exposed to a product too many times, then the effect is reversed; our interest turns to irritation. That song that we were singing along to one month starts to sound like saccharine noise after three. If the characters seem too much like the protagonists from last summer’s blockbuster, and the blockbuster before that, and the blockbuster from five years ago, we’ve seen enough for our appreciation for the roles to turn into derision about their lack of novelty.

I’m sure skilled writing and good acting don’t hurt a movie’s chance of success, either.

Mankind has accomplished great things. In the last century alone, we have progressed from communicating by mail, to the telephone, to the cell phone, to email, to texting. We have built cars to take us to work and planes to take us to foreign places we’ve already explored online. We are connected 24-hours a day to a tool that instantly gives us access to the latest updates on global politics, scientific discoveries, and archeological finds, tailored to our particular interests and level of understanding. Yet, when I log on to check my email or flip on the television, the first headline that hits me usually reads, “Young female singer/actor/reality star caught behaving inappropriately at club/on set/in court.”

Gossip is idle talk, slander, and exaggeration. It’s also a pastime, a bond, and a way to gather important information. Long before it was used to laugh at celebrity faux pas, it may have evolved as a way to strengthen the social bonds between members of a group. Our ancestors may have been huddling by the fire, sharing who was hurt during the latest mastodon hunt, who had found their newest mate, and who had fathered offspring with the woman two caves over. Exchanging information is vital in forming alliances among peers—an advantage in a world where the group with the most members survived.

65% of conversation is devoted to gossip, regardless of gender. Our instinct to gossip about celebrities is the same as when society was just forming. Engaging someone about topics that interest them helps to promote friendship; juicy tidbits about shared acquaintances imply trust and intimacy.  Anecdotes about the celebrities neither of you will ever meet still comes from the instinct to trade information about members of the group. After seeing these people on our televisions and laptop screens every day, our minds are convinced that their actions are relevant to our social lives.

Parasocial interaction describes a one-sided relationship that forms when one person knows a lot of information about someone who knows little, or nothing, about them. These types of relationships often form with celebrities, whose intimate moments and life stories are posted online for anyone to learn. After a few months of listening to interviews, reading their Twitter feeds, and visiting their websites, our favorite celebrities start to seem less like strangers we admire, and more like our neighbors from down the street.

My friend, Kim.

Gossip, whether about our friends, coworkers, or relative strangers, has a benefit in addition to social bonding. It also serves up models with whom we can compare our social worth. The Social Comparison Process suggests that we use both upward and downward comparison to determine how we stack up with others. If this theory is accurate, then gossip about celebrities helps us two-fold—its downward comparisons let us know that even if we hadn’t achieved fame and fortune before we reached 25, at least we haven’t been arrested, and its upward comparisons allow us to shoot for that day when we can become as successful and charming as that woman on our television screens.

So gossip magazines and television shows aren’t just entertaining us by illustrating the foibles of the down-on-their-luck celebrities; they are providing the source material we need to become the better versions of ourselves. Thanks, TMZ.

Lauren Volpone