Not too far in the past, emotions typically labelled as “negative” were seen as something to be avoided altogether – a possible hangover from the positive psychology movement – but as researchers delve deeper into the human mind, such attitudes are starting to seem a little simplistic.
While few people would argue that pursuing sadness is a healthy thing to do, trying to escape it might not be a good idea, either. Researchers at Oxford University now say that watching traumatic films can boost our threshold for pain, increase group bonding and raise certain feel-good chemical in the brain.
“The argument here is that actually, maybe the emotional wringing you get from tragedy triggers the endorphin system,” said Robin Dunbar, a co-author on the study and professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford.
“Singing and dancing and jogging and laughter, all produce an endorphin kick for the same reason – they are putting the musculature of the body under stress.”
According to Dunbar, areas of the brain that handle physical pain are also responsible for dealing with psychological distress. The study was published on September 21 in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
In the study, 169 participants watched an emotionally intense movie (Stuart: A Life Backwards) about a disabled, homeless drug addict, which is based on a real-life story, while 68 controls were shown two documentaries back-to-back – one on natural history and the other on the geology and archaeology of Britain.
Before and after seeing the films, participants were asked to indicate through various scales their mood, together with their feelings of belonging towards other members of their group. A number of participants were also asked to complete an exercise to gauge their pain tolerance – the wall-sit test, involving squatting with their back against a wall for as long as possible.
Using the release of endorphins as proxy for pain tolerance level, the researchers found that the group watching the traumatic movie saw a 13.1% increase in their pain threshold and reported a heightened sense of closeness to their peers, while the control group saw a 4.6% decrease in pain tolerance and felt the same in terms of bonding.
The research team now plans to conduct further research into a wider range of films and other influences, such as musical scores, to tease out whether the effect is due to particular emotions, or the sharing of them.