Busting the popular myth that people who cry while watching films are weak, a new Oxford study claims that it may be a good practice as crying increases our threshold for pain and boosts feel-good chemicals in the brain.
Researchers also found that stories that arouse our emotions trigger the same mechanisms as other forms of bonding.
While comedy makes us laugh, a process that releases endorphins — feel-good chemicals that increase pain tolerance and lead us to bond with each other, it is less clear why we would choose to watch emotionally stirring drama.
Researchers from Oxford University in the UK decided to test whether such drama causes emotional arousal that itself triggers endorphin release.
For the study, a group of volunteers watched the film ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’, chronicling the life story of a disabled child abuse survivor who eventually kills himself.
A second group watched documentaries that were about far less emotive subjects.
As it is impossible to directly measure endorphin release without scanning or a lumbar puncture, neither of which are generally practical, the team tested changes in pain threshold, a common proxy measure for endorphin release.
This was done with the wall-sit test, in which people take an unsupported sitting position with their back against the wall and hold it as long as possible. The two volunteer groups did the test before and after the viewing.
They also completed questionnaires before and after to assess the emotional effect of the films.
Those who watched Stuart were significantly less cheerful afterwards, while the documentary viewers were far less affected.
When retested on the wall-sit, those who had watched Stuart could hold the position for an average 13.1 per cent longer.
The documentary group held for an average 4.6 per cent shorter time, the same result as researchers would expect had they done nothing between the two wall-sits.
From the questionnaires, the team found that those who had watched the film also felt a greater bond to their fellow viewers compared to the documentary-watching group.
“Those who had the greatest emotional response also had the greatest increase in pain threshold and the greater their sense of being bonded with their group,” said Robin Dunbar, professor at Oxford University.
“It seems that our affinity for emotive fiction may have evolved in the context of bonding social groups,” Dunbar said.
“As we have also seen this endorphin effect in laughter, singing and dancing, it seems storytelling is part of group of social activities that bring people together,” he said.
“This is not to say that this one chemical effect alone is the only reason for dramatic fiction – there are other aspects of human psychology at work – but we believe that it is an important reason for our enjoyment of fiction,” he added.