Curious Question: Why Do We Feel Emotional When Watching Movies?

Ever shed a tear on the movie Hachi: A Dog’s Tale or dodged those punches and bullets on Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible? Why do we do this? These are all just movies, is it not?


How can a fictional motion picture call forth our emotions? Why do we feel invested in the characters when they do not even exist? It’s all just make-believe.


I am just as perplexed as you. And here is what I found out.


The Brain Can’t Distinguish Real and Fiction

The Brain Can't Distinguish Real and Fiction

Image Credit: Be There


When watching, our brain processes the events happening in the movie as if it was real. Dr. Jeffrey Zacks, a Professor of Psychology at Washington University, writes about this in his book entitled “Flicker: Your Brain on Movies”.


The brain responds to the scenes of empathy and self-preservation the same way. It can’t distinguish real and fiction. Coupled with excellent video editing, sounds, and the most convincing actors, prepare to cry your hearts out in the climax.


The Mirror Principle


Of the many reasons, the Mirror Principle can explain this tendency. The Mirror Principle is our brain’s impulse to mimic or “mirror” the actions we see. It makes us connect more with the person.


If you now connect, later you may share each other’s emotion. So if you see a smiling movie character, don’t be surprised if you smile as well. And feel what his/her feeling as the movie progresses.


Feeling of Empathy

  The Success Rule- Fight or Flight Response  

Movies play on our emotions every time. If the connection is established, we tend to now invest ourselves in their plight or peril. Our ability to feel what they are feeling is called empathy.


The body heightens oxytocin in our body. This neuropeptide is responsible for our empathic shift as we watch throughout the emotional scenes.


Psychology Today expressed that oxytocin levels increase at the smallest suggestion of a personal connection, even from strangers. In this case, even from fictional strangers.


Research even validates the claim. They found out that oxytocin levels in the blood increased by 47% in participants after watching an emotional part of the movie. Further proving the assumptions above.


The Success Rule: Fight or Flight Response


Flinching while watching movies is another thing. That punch wouldn’t hit you. It’s on the movie screen. But why do we duck and take cover?


The answer is our instincts. Our body has a built-in survival mechanisms inherited genetically or learned thru experience


If someone throws a speeding baseball to your face, do you accept the hit wholeheartedly? I know you wouldn’t. And if you did when you were young (assumingly), I’m sure this danger is ingrained in your being from the very moment you passed out from its strike.


Flinching just means that your body’s survival instinct is still in place. It might be annoying to be flinching throughout the movie. But at least, you know you are protected in real life.




Watching movies has been our leisure time now and for the coming decades. It might be weird to actually feel the fictional. But what are we gonna do? I suggest sit down and just enjoy the show.


PS: Stop your tears. I know. Dobby the elf does not deserve to die! Curse you Bellatrix!

Leandro Eclipse

Leandro Eclipse is an entrepreneur who loves to travel. He believes in building multiple Location-Independent Sources of Income. Because if you are going to work anyway, might as well do it while exploring the world. Self-proclaimed foodie and tech geek. Follow him on IG @mikoeclipse.


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