Audience brain dynamics in response to suspenseful narratives


Media psychology is rich in theory explaining why narratives can invoke strong experiences of suspense in audiences, but there is a lack of explanation for how suspense develops in the brains of audiences over time. Suspense represents a unique blend of affective and cognitive processes (Pessoa, 2008). As the audience becomes aware of a looming threat to a beloved protagonist, the tension rises and keeps us predicting, “What’s going to happen next?” What are the dynamic brain processes that give rise to the experience of suspense in an audience over time? We are currently exploring the brain mechanisms that contribute to this rich, affective experience that keeps eyes locked on-screen to the very end.

Inspiration and the power of positive affect in narratives

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Think back to the last time you looked out across a vast landscape or heard a swelling melody from an orchestra. How did you feel? These are two commonly reported elicitors of inspiration, an experience that’s often discussed as a burst of transcendent feeling that makes us want to be better people and do good things. However, it’s a difficult thing to study. Although it’s fairly easy to get a strong aversive response from someone (try a picture of blood, that usually works), it’s very difficult to reliably inspire even a comparatively homogenous audience. We take on the challenge with our ongoing investigation of audience responses to inspirational stories to explain the biological underpinnings of this positive affective experience, which motivates personal growth and altruism.