People at movie theater
Original Published Date: 
Thursday, February 25, 2021

Full article issued by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function.

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function have demonstrated that movies can be used to study how patterns of brain activity change in response to external stimuli. 

The researchers used a 20-minute movie called ‘The Butterfly Circus’ as the external stimuli. This allowed them to expose participants to the same simulated real-world experiences at specific times. For example, the movie featured actors using positive and negative facial expressions and included scenes that were designed to evoke particular emotions.

As participants viewed the movie, their brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). It was also recorded before the movie, while they rested with their eyes closed. Afterwards, the participants completed a questionnaire about how much they enjoyed the movie, whether they were bored, and how emotional it made them feel.

By comparing fMRI recordings using statistical techniques, the researchers could study how patterns of brain activity change in response to complex external stimuli. They found that brain activity at rest switched between two relatively indistinct states. During movie viewing, however, brain activity switched between multiple distinct states that aligned with specific features of the movie.

Researchers say that the findings demonstrate that movies can be used in research as a structured, contextually-rich simulation of the real world, and are a reliable and reproducible way to study the brain’s response to stimuli that are similar to those we process in everyday life. 

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