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Rewrite the Headlines: Can films really boost your memory?

by on 2016/02/05

Over the first few weeks of February, we’re showcasing the top entries in both the school and undergraduate categories of our Rewrite the Headlines competition (full list of winners here). We’re now onto the special undergraduate subject prizes, with Sarah Keith at the University of Aberdeen winning the Social Science prize, sponsored by Palgrave Macmillan and the Social Research Association.

Can films really boost your memory?

In July, the Mail Online reported, “Thrillers can boost memory”. A scientific break through surely? The best way to revise for exams really is to spend a few hours watching films, right? Sadly no.  Although this makes an engaging headline, the research paper that they are referring to does not actually show this.

The paper by Bezdek and colleagues published earlier this year presented 19 undergraduate students with film clips while the blood flow in their brain was measured in an fMRI scanner. The film clips had a checkerboard around the edge, which participant’s would see in their peripheral vision. Researchers found that when there was an increased narrative suspense in a film, there was a reduction in the activity in the peripheral visual processing areas in the calcarine sulcus, suggesting that the participants’ attention focuses in on the film and away from their surroundings.  Thus, less attention was given to the outer checkerboard.

The researchers go on to suggest that there may also be links to greater memory recall with an “increased central visual processing at moments of high suspense”, but acknowledge that this “extends beyond the findings of the present study”, thus more research needs to be done before conclusions on this can be drawn. Therefore, the Mail Online is misreporting the research paper as the researchers merely speculate about a link between an increased function in memory during high suspense films. The paper primarily looks at suspense and blood flow, not memory.

The newspaper article further misrepresents the research by focussing on the Hitchcock films rather than suspense and blood flow, which was the focus of the paper. The article mentions specifics about moments in the film such as “when Cary Grant is being pursued by an airplane” which surprisingly is not the most important part of the research. It could be suggested that this trivialises the research, however it has arguably been used as a method to engage the reader in an area of science, which many may not be particularly familiar with.

The actual research paper also contains some weaknesses. This paper primarily looks at blood flow in the brain and perception. It is therefore paramount to record participants’ eye gaze while they watch the film clips, as this is a key way to determine where their attention is. Although this study argues that they have looked at eye gaze, they only did this through a self-report measure with participants after they had viewed the film. To not measure the eye gaze and simply rely on participants to honestly say if they followed instructions is not very reliable. Even if participants felt that they did fixate on one spot, they may have unconsciously adjusted their gaze, which could seriously alter the findings. This study could therefore be improved by tracking participants eye gaze as they watch the film clips.

However, the research paper did use naturalistic stimuli with film clips and measured participants’ brain activity during the film rather than after, which enables the research to have greater ecological validity than other studies in this area. For example, a study by Finucane showed participants a film clip and then asked them to complete a flanker task (a response inhibition task) and emotion report after they had viewed the film. It is therefore harder to distinguish the changes that occurred to the brain during the film from what would occur after the film was viewed.

The more realistic set up to the study and use of naturalistic stimuli may have also contributed to the Mail Online’s choice of writing about this research paper. If readers can relate to watching films, and possibly the films used in the experiment, they may relate to the feeling of transportation highlighted. If readers can relate to the research, arguably they may be more likely to read the article.

Despite the inaccuracies reported, the Mail Online has tried to make a scientific research paper accessible to the general public, which is beneficial to science and to the public. The researchers, university and the journal Neuroscience which the research was published in, were all mentioned by the Mail Online which enables readers to find the actual article and read it themselves if they wish, further demonstrating an openness by the Mail Online to its readers. Perhaps a better research paper could have been chosen, but the fact that this area of Psychology has been reported to the general public is a step in the right direction towards a more accessible science.

Sarah Keith, University of Aberdeen

References:

Bezdek, M. A., Gerrig, R. J., Wenzel, W. G., Shin, J., Pirog Revill, K., & Schumacher, E. H. (2015). Neural evidence that suspense narrows attentional focus. Neuroscience, 303, 338–45. doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2015.06.055

Finucane, A. M. (2011). The effect of fear and anger on selective attention. Emotion11 (4), 970.

MailOnline (2015, July 27). How thrillers can boost memory: Experts reveal the brain acquires ‘tunnel vision’ during tense moments on screen which could be used to increase power of recall. Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3175537/Thrillers-help-brain-increase-power-recall-tunnel-vision.html. Accessed October 23, 2015.


The Rewrite the Headlines competition was supported by funding from the British Academy, with additional funding from the University of Strathclyde. The Social Science prize was sponsored by Palgrave Macmillan and the Social Research Association.

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Prizes were supported by the British Academy, the University of Strathclyde, the School of Chemistry at the University of St. Andrews, the School of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde, the University of Dundee School of Life Sciences, and the Particle Physics Experiment Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, the Social Research Association, the Scottish History Society, and Palgrave Macmillan.

Competition details can be accessed at https://researchtheheadlines.org/rewritetheheadlines, and the full list of winners is available here.

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