Quentin Tarantino's films have found a wide audience since he debuted with 'Reservoir Dogs' in 1992. Quentin Tarantino's films have found a wide audience since he debuted with 'Reservoir Dogs' in 1992. Quentin Tarantino's films have found a wide audience since he debuted with 'Reservoir Dogs' in 1992. (Photo: Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com)

What happens to your brain when you watch a Quentin Tarantino movie

The director's 'Reservoir Dogs' is being studied in a very interesting way.

American auteur Quentin Tarantino has been thrilling audiences for decades with movies that use multilayered storylines and complex plot devices, eliciting any number of emotional responses, from excitement to shock to laughter.

"Pulp Fiction," which Tarantino personally screened earlier this summer at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is one such film, but perhaps even more so is that which came before it, his debut feature, "Reservoir Dogs."

So when a group of researchers in Israel and Germany were studying how the brain classifies emotionally ambiguous situations, they decided use the 1992 film to simulate a lack of emotional clarity.

If you've seen the cult classic film, you'd know why; it includes many complex situations, such as a memorable scene where one of the characters is torturing another while smiling, dancing and altogether acting friendly toward his captive.

In the new study published recently in the journal Human Brain Mapping, the group of researchers led by Dr. Christiane Rohr of the Max Planck Institute in Germany and Dr. Hadas Okon-Singer of the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa, in Israel, explain how they were able to identify the way the brain switches between two previously identified networks – one that operates when we perceive the situation as positive, and another that operates when we perceive it as negative.

They first had participants in the study watch "Reservoir Dogs" while they were inside an MRI machine, and then report whether they felt that each scene they viewed included a conflict. For each moment in the movie, the participants also rated how dominant the positive and negative elements were.

The study found that the transition between activity in the positive or negative network is facilitated by two areas in the brain – the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and the inferior parietal lobule (IPL). These areas form part of the negative and positive networks, but also acted when the participants felt that the movie scene embodied an emotional conflict. The STS was found to be associated with the interpretation of positive situations, while the IPL is associated with the interpretation of negative situations.

Okon-Singer explained that these two areas effectively function as “remote controls” that spring into action when the brain recognizes that there is an emotional conflict.

"The two areas seem to ‘speak’ to each other and interpret the situation in order to decide which one will be switched on and which one will be switched off, thereby determining which network will be active,” he said.

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What happens to your brain when you watch a Quentin Tarantino movie
The iconic director's films are being studied by Israeli and German researchers in a very interesting way.