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“Watching 3D movies ‘helps improve brain power’”, leading cinema chain suggests

by on 2015/05/27

If recent headlines are to be believed, watching 3D films might not only provide viewers with a more immersive cinema-going experience, they may also benefit cognitive performance. You might have seen headlines like the one above in the Guardian (though they omitted the “leading cinema chain suggests” part, more on that below), or similarly in the Express: “Want to increase your brain power? Watching a 3D movie makes you more intelligent”. But before you rush off to your local multiplex and upgrade your tickets for the latest release from 2D to 3D to give your brain an extra boost, let’s go beyond the headlines and take a closer look at the research.

What did the media say?

The story appeared in a number of media outlets (search online for “3D films brain boost”, for example, and you should return a good number of hits under the news tab). As noted above, the Guardian gives one such summary, reporting that people in the study “showed a 23% increase in cognitive processing ability after watching a movie in stereoscope [3D]. Their reaction times improved by 11%, and they experienced a “brain boost” for up to 20 minutes after viewing”. Not only that, but the “improvement in reaction time was five times that experienced by participants who had been watching a 2D movie”.

The results appear pretty interesting, suggesting very specific improvements after watching 3D films versus those in 2D. However, the media reporting doesn’t give any details of the number of participants involved, whether the same people completed their cognitive tests after watching both 2D and 3D films or if separate groups were used (after being randomly assigned to one of those types of films), or what the cognitive tests used were specifcally assessing. It is of course not uncommon for some of that detail to be lost in a media report of research (sadly), but it does impact our ability to fully evaluate what the researchers did.

As you can imagine, I was keen to follow-up and read the full report of the study. The media coverage, including the Guardian, noted the research was led by Patrick Fagan, Goldsmiths University, and Professor Brendan Walker of Thrill Laboratory, so we can at least begin to trace the research to the source. There’s no scientific journal listed where the work was published, which made tracking down a full report difficult. There was, however, an embedded video clip describing the research, posted by Vue Cinemas on their YouTube channel, in partnership with RealD, a company behind many of the 3D technology used in cinemas… You can probably see where this is going.

What did the researchers actually do?

Other than the details reported above, it’s actually quite hard to say. That’s because there doesn’t appear to be any published material from this study for us to refer to. We therefore don’t have anywhere near enough information to judge the robustness of the research design or measurements. That’s a real shame, as the idea certain lifestyles or behaviours might affect our abilities later is an important area of research.

The media coverage appears to have been generated from the very slickly produced promotional video. As an exercise in engaging the public with research (while selling them cinema tickets), it works very well, and indeed looks like it would be a fun study to be part of. However, the involvement of two genuine researchers means that the way this has been used and reported raises cause for concern.

It’s a shame that angle appears to have been lost in most of the mainstream coverage, with no mention that the lack of a published scientific paper is an issue. It should be noted that Fagan’s area of interest is marketing and consumer behaviour, and in “applying the science to a commercial context”. And I understand that in discussing this piece at all, I am of course falling prey to their marketing trap. If it’s a gimmick and a bit of fun then fine (perhaps), but we shouldn’t be pleased that it is being presented as more than that at present. If further peer-reviewed details follow then of course it deserves coverage, but until then, sell it as a bit of fun.

What is particularly troubling, however, are some the quotes attributed to Fagan, in the Guardian coverage. He suggests “It is a fact that people are living longer and there is a noticeable decline in cognitive brain function in old age, which can impair future quality of life. There has never been a better time to look at ways to improve brain function. The initial results of this study indicate that 3D films may potentially play a role in slowing this decline.” What? While it would be hard to argue with the first 2 sentences, the final one is absolutely not supported by the current research (or at least, what we know of it), and appears to be a further case of vastly overselling this promotional material.

And another thing, why are the neuroscientists wearing lab coats in the video?

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