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Why Alfred Hitchcock Grabs Your Attention

The movies of Alfred Hitchcock have made palms sweat and pulses race for more than 65 years. Georgia Tech researchers have now learned how the Master of Suspense affects viewers’ brains.

Their study measured brain activity while people watched clips from Hitchcock and other suspenseful films. They found that during high suspense moments, the brain narrows what people see and focuses their attention on the story. During less suspenseful moments, viewers devote more attention to their surroundings.

photo - Alfred Hitchcock
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Many people have a feeling that we get lost in the story while watching a good movie and that the theater disappears around us,” said Matt Bezdek, the Georgia Tech postdoctoral psychology researcher who led the study. “Now we have brain evidence to support the idea that people are figuratively transported into the narrative.”

In the study, participants lay in an MRI machine and watched scenes from 10 suspenseful movies, including Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, as well as Alien and Misery. As the movies played in the center of the screen, a flashing checkerboard pattern appeared around the edges.

The researchers discovered an ebb and flow of brain activity in the calcarine sulcus: the first brain area to receive and process most visual information.

When the suspense grew, brain activity in the peripheral visual processing areas of the calcarine sulcus decreased and activity in the central processing areas increased. For example, during the famous North by Northwest scene, the brain narrowed its visual focus as the airplane bore down on Cary Grant. When he hid in the cornfield and suspense decreased, the neural activity reversed course and attention broadened.

“It’s a neural signature of tunnel vision,” said Eric Schumacher, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology. “During the most suspenseful moments, participants focused on the movie and subconsciously ignored the checkerboards. The brain narrowed the participants’ attention, steering them to the center of the screen and into the story.”

The study will be published in the journal Neuroscience.

— Jason Maderer

Eric Schumacher

Eric Schumacher is an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology. He studies cognition and brain science.

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