In pain? Watch a sad movie

October 13, 2016 by Martha’s Dad

sad-2765787Chemicals in the brain can be very strange things… Take endorphins, for instance, those little devils that mainly serve to help transmit pain signals around the brain.  They activate opiate receptors, which can be quite handy if we stub a toe or get punched on the nose, but they also become surprisingly active when we engage in activities that are more associated with social bonding, such as going to the pub with friends, engaging in team sports, or simply having a dance.  But what else might happen to trigger endorphin release?

According to evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, writing in Royal Society Open Science recently, watching a movie can have a particularly powerful effect, mainly related to the level of involvement the movie stimulates and the intensity of our emotional responses.  And it seems when it comes to movies, at least as far as the endorphin system is concerned, it’s a case of the sadder the better.  In an interesting set of experiments, Dunbar and his colleagues found that watching a real tear-jerker not only stimulates endorphin activity, it also has an amazing effect on our capacity for pain due to the resulting release of opiates.  In fact, a weepy movie can raise pain-thresholds by up to 18% more than a funny movie, or even a factual documentary on the exact same subject!

The motto of all this?  It’s the power of the story…  Fiction engages us in a particularly powerful way, emotionally at least, far more than reality.  That’s why stories have such a special place in all human cultures.  Very sad stories in particular are very engaging, producing an even stronger emotional response.  And all of this is good, of course, if you happen to be in pain.  So, next time you stub your toe or have a really stonking headache, don’t reach for the paracetamol – just stick on a DVD of Me Before You (or something equally cheery!) and the pain will be gone in a flash.  Well, maybe…