Focus and clarity after going out for a movie - why?
June 18, 2006 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes when I come out of a movie I get a beautiful feeling of clarity and focus. I have some questions about this.

I've probably understated this a bit in the front page summary. What I'm talking about is a completely different way of experiencing the world. It's like I'm actually awake for the first time and the rest of my life has been kind of a blurry dream. Everything seems more vivid and real. I feel like an integrated person instead of just a whole mess of competing worries. It seems like I'm actually in control for once.

It will probably be clear from the above that I'm not satisfied with my normal experience of life and have had a nagging feeling that something is wrong for years now. My concentration is awful and life seems flat and colourless. I should probably mention that I've tried one anti-depressant but didn't last long on it due to the awful side effects. I'm thinking of trying again, but anyway, the questions:

Does anyone know what this effect is? Does it have a name? It doesn't seem to happen at live shows, and it seems to happen more with high-testosterone movies.

Plenty of people here seem to be familiar with depression and its treatment, have you experienced this? Can the meds make my normal experience of life like this? I have a feeling that this is actually what my life used to be like but it's not easy to trust myself because it's been such a long time.

Writing this I've pretty much convinced myself to go back to the doc but I will really appreciate any responses to these questions or other comments. Thanks in advance.
posted by teleskiving to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think maybe you should reduce your expectations. Nothing can make your life be like that all the time, though getting treatment should make things better.

What you're feeling is somewhat similar to what the Greeks called "catharsis". By its nature, the feeling of catharsis is transitory.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:54 PM on June 18, 2006

During a long term work experience of a work of art (such as a film or book), one comes to identify it, so that when it is finished, one feels the same sense of aesthetic completion that was constructed in the work - form is imposed upon you, so to speak, and form is nice. It feels like doing something without having to do it. But as Steven says, it's transitory. Life isn't a work of art, though many people treat it as one.

A doc might be able to help you get in touch with your imagination, so that what you see and do feels meaningful and right, however random. Or try and forget the movies and music for a while, leave behind the iPod, and open your eyes and ears :)
posted by RGD at 4:25 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It may be Flow:

"Flow is a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity."
-- Wikipedia article, linked above.

I sometimes experience flow when I'm watching moves, seeing plays or reading novels. It happens if the story is so engrossing that my entire mind is engaged with it. All those worries you mention can't intrude, because there's no mental space for them to take over. The story has completely dominated the brain.

It makes sense that a story could do this, because stories are heightened versions of real-life events. Presumably they activate the same parts of the brain that get activated when you're living an event that is portrayed in the story.

I think maybe you should reduce your expectations. Nothing can make your life be like that all the time.

If it is, indeed, Flow that you're experiencing, you might not have to reduce your expectations. Rather, you need to jump into activities that challenge you.

The way you do this depends on your personality. I do it by making it my goal to understand everything in my environment -- even mundane details. If there's a new photocopier at work, I'll take the manual home and read it until I understand every function of the machine. If I eat a lot of chicken, I'll try to learn where it comes from, how it is slaughtered, etc. If you live your life this way, it's possible to get to a state where you're never bored or disappointed.

I do worry, but I tend to worry about specific things. like losing someone I love. But it's been a long time since I've been bored or since I've found the world colorless. And I'm NOT one of these people who likes to wake up and and watch the sunrise. I don't find the world meaningful unless I MAKE it meaningful. So making it meaningful has become part of my lifestyle.
posted by grumblebee at 4:30 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Are you American? (/Outdated rhetorical question.)

I often experience the same feeling. A friend of mine who loves the theatre once explained his passion by saying, "Art is better than life". I was dumbfounded at this; art often is better than reality, or at least offers a seemingly more complete experience, but I find this, on the contrary, an immense disappointment. I suspect the answer lies in the difference between my reaction and his, though I haven't yet found an effective way to understand it.

Lowering your expectations is perhaps good advice; maybe neutralizing the stark contrast between feeling "awake for the first time" and in a "blurry dream" by finding a way to let the sensations you get in the cinema to inform your mundane experience would be a useful strategy. You could think about how the storyline of a satisfying film is edited, and pay attention to the moments that are omitted: then find these moments in your life and realize that there is little difference other than production. You could do this, for example, by trying to write short stories based on your daily life and focusing firstly on those rare, edifying, "colourful" moments, and then on everything that comes before and after them, the things that make them possilbe while themselves being completely meaningless without that added context.

This might 1) damage your ability to watch films in a passive, idealistic way; 2) empower you to idealize your own life a bit more, hopefully also enriching your experience of it; and, therefore, 3) help you feel like an "integrated mess of worries" - that is, experience the perfections and the imperfections of life without so much despair over the sudden changes between them. Don't want so much, but be happy when it's there.
posted by xanthippe at 4:31 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mm. Yes. I do experience this when I come out of movies that I've really "fallen into," so to speak. I'm able to push aside any thoughts of my regular life while I'm in the movie—or if I do think about the outside world during the movie, those thoughts are generally about positive things that match up between my life and life inside the movie. The thought is something akin to, "Hey, I'm just like that!" or "That could be me!" If I have thoughts about my regular life, they're usually ones that serve to draw me further into the movie experience.

I walk out of those movies feeling wittier, more in control of my life, and generally as though nothing can touch me. It often happens when I deeply empathize with a main character in the film, and I almost feel as though I gain that character's attributes—if they're tough, I feel tougher. If they're smart, I feel smarter—and for a while, at least, I'm able to act smarter and I gain a quicker wit as well. And I feel like everyone around me can clearly see my true worth shining forth—it's a very empowering feeling.

Now why does this happen? My idea is that it's not necessarily catharsis—though that can definitely be part of the experience as well. In my case, at least, I think I get these feelings because I'm able for a time to put aside my own doubts about myself and my life and inhabit the life of another person. I remember all that I'm capable of, and imagine that I'm surely capable of other feats, such as wielding guns and swords, cutting down my opponents with a single phrase, etc.

It may be that nothing can make you feel like that all the time—but I think what you're seeking is a feeling of self-efficacy or self-actualization. To put it plainly: even a very talented individual can be handicapped by his/her own feelings of worthlessness. People tend to get in patterns of thought where they dwell upon mistakes made and problems in their life, and eventually spiral downward. It's happened to me, and it's happened to my boyfriend—and what helped in each case was some form of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Now, I never took antidepressants, but my boyfriend is currently taking them. You can go either way with that—that's for you and your doctor to decide. But the one thing I would really recommend is finding a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. It can help you change the patterns of thought that keep you from feeling capable and strong.
posted by limeonaire at 4:35 PM on June 18, 2006

There is always a sense of closure in a film. It has a beginning, middle, and resolution (ending). I think that could feel not only comforting but desirable if you are nervous about the present and future. By their nature good stories move the reader/viewer along. That too can feel secure if you are feeling adrift in your life.

As an artist I have to say life isn't a work of art, but art is a work of life and the exhilaration and sense of completion I feel when I'm creative seems close to what you are feeling when you leave someone else's work (like a film).

It's nice to be moved and affected by someone else's process. But the feeling is magnified when it's your own.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:46 PM on June 18, 2006

The feelings you describe remind me of some of the powerful moments I've experienced while on LSD. The vividness, integration, awakeness, and ultrareality while tripping have had long term emotional/psychological effects on me for the better.

You might want to explore LSD and other psychoactives rather than anti-depressants.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:48 PM on June 18, 2006

Hey, here's a wild idea ... good art makes you happy. Period.

Oh, we can talk about serotinin and endorphin levels and re-uptake inhibitors ... but people go to movies because the get a good story that makes them feel happy, excited, sad, romantic, thrilled, scared, etc.
posted by frogan at 5:35 PM on June 18, 2006

I know exactly what you mean--I, too, have struggled with depression, so it's possible it's a factor. I've experienced precisely the same feeling.

You might want to try acting. Being onstage often gives me the same feeling. I think it's a combination of the adrenaline and the fuller breathing associated with projection of the voice, but I get that same richer, brighter, more awake feeling that you describe after doing what feels like really good work onstage.

It's also helped with both my depression and social anxiety. I was shy as anybody (my knees shook at first every time I went onstage) but it's made me a happier, more outgoing, more complete person. It might be worth going to a few auditions at a local community theater and seeing what happens.
posted by EarBucket at 5:39 PM on June 18, 2006

Best answer: Probably its due to a couple of things happening.

One reason may be that movies (like books) are essentially a form of hypnosis. Your mind is operating at a different rythym and context for at least an hour.

Another reason: you say high-testosterone movies give you this feeling. Because the movies you watch have alot of action, its probably raising your adrenaline levels, and you feel energized, yet also relaxed, when you leave the theater.

I know I feel like that sometimes after a movie, particularly if I've been feeling depressed or listless or haven't been exercising. I know I also feel "clear-eyed" and free from worries after finishing a really involving video game.

My recommendation is that you begin to research techniques like hynposis or meditation that alter your consciousness, and see what they may offer you.
posted by 1fish2fish at 5:47 PM on June 18, 2006

Best answer: I'll second what others have said about catharsis, closure, artistic distillation of experience and perhaps also "flow".

Another aspect is that for a couple of hours in a movie you sit quite passively, paying attention to things done by and to others, perhaps losing some of your sense of self in the process. This relaxing of self-awareness means that you can (continue to) focus more on what is going on around you, rather than focus on your own mental chatter; your internal monologue. This kind of awareness without "ego-consciousness" is a goal of meditation, and may also result from the relaxation and concentration that flow might bring about.

Don't forget also the jarring effect of leaving the cinema and being thrown back into ordinary reality. The contrast between the two may lead you to feel somewhat distanced from reality, thereby feeling more "clarity" through a more abstracted, detached relationship with the world.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:22 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I once walked out of a movie (and not a particularly special movie) with a sort of epiphany about life. I started eating right and getting more exercise and lost about 25 kg that year. I don't know why that happened, something just clicked.
posted by tomble at 6:35 PM on June 18, 2006

Best answer: My guess,

Films, (and probably most art) provide a focal point for the consciousness. The experience of enjoying an art work is something akin to meditation, as the mind's activity is restricted to one task. This explains the pleasurable feeling, as losing the sense of self is generally accompanied by a release of tension.

The actual effect on the brain can be explained in terms of your brainwave frequency. Film-watching promotes relaxed attention, which is associated with the lower beta and possibly high alpha frequencies, which are like day-dreaming or even actual dreaming. I believe studies have shown (no cite, sorry) that time spent in the lower frequencies can have general improvements in health and well-being for everyone and can particularly help people with a variety of problems like depression, hyperactivity, and so on.

Unlike actual mediation, which typically concentrates the mind on a single, simple concept or pattern (e.g. your breathing, a word, an image), art, and films especially, are much more complex, providing a dynamic stimulus to the mind. This entertaining complexity makes is much easier to get absorbed in the subject, and can better lull the brain into the aforementioned relaxed states of consciousness.

Moreover, this state being somewhat like sleeping, and associated with dream-like brain processes, the consciousness becomes entangled with the film's (or whatever arts') subject or content - resulting in something like a guided dream. Therefore if the film or art is generally enjoyable, the experience is not unlike having a pleasant dream. If the film or art is particularly 'deep' or involving, the experience can be rather like having a powerful dream, in which the subconscious explores and possibly solves various problems that the dreamer may be unaware of.

All of this is a good thing, and in my opinion is a large part of what art is for. This is why I very much like watching, and hope to someday make films.

I agree with the suggestions upthread that if you seek this feeling, practice some simple mediation. My suggested approach for the beginner is to take a few minutes every now and again to try to focus on your breathing: in and out, in and out. You can count the breathes, up to 10, if it helps. Don't try too hard not to think about other things, just bring your mind back to your breathing whenever it drifts.
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:59 PM on June 18, 2006

Best answer: Ah, I neglected to mention that "high-testosterone" movies, along with various fast and demanding activities like playing sport or driving fast can promote high-beta or possibly gamma brainwave frequencies. It is hard to find decent material on the net concerning this, but I seem to recall these frequencies may be equally associated with certain types of dreaming and meditation, and in fact there may also be elements of theta waves (associated with deep-sleep) mixed in (note, if it is not evident by now, I am not in any sense expert in this stuff).

So to get this feeling more, do some kind of fun demanding physical activity like ride a mountain bike down a muddy hill, climb a tree, or play sport. Brainwave business aside, these sorts of activities are certainly believed to increase general well-being and to reduce depression.
posted by MetaMonkey at 8:04 PM on June 18, 2006

Best answer: What a very interesting discussion this is. Depression here too, as well as that nagging feeling (maybe we're in the Matrix!). No focus. Blurry life. I also can't remember what life was like B.D., but while I'm sure it was better, I'm pretty sure it wasn't this feeling of flow and synch and whatnot, because I think I know what you're talking about. While medicine may help, I really don't think it will make life feel this way.

At first I was going to say that I've had a feeling similar to yours, but not after a movie. But then I started remembering. Something like that happened after Forrest Gump, most especially after A.I., and to significantly lesser degrees after a few others. It's almost like my reset button had been hit. And at least for a while, a lot of the everpresent mental BS and noise just drained away and I had this broad and balanced perspective on things and good feeling about life. I hadn't really thought about it as a defined phenomenon until you mentioned it.

But the original feeling I was going to mention was a cousin to this, and not triggered by movies. I don't know what triggers it. I tried in vain to describe this to a friend once, but gave up after an hour or so. I just couldn't describe it well enough and/or he'd never felt it. But it's sort of like that rare (for me) post-movie feeling, but really magnified.

It's like the spheres have aligned for a brief window (an hour?) and I get this glimpse of the universe. Clarity, like you said. I get this beautiful surge of ultra-broad perspective, in which I get this feeling of the connectedness of all things at the highest levels. And it's also a feeling that ultimately everything is OK in the universe and life. It's much bigger than me and yet doesn't make me feel small, only grants this cosmic perspective. It's a sort of calm joy that flows up and keeps flowing. It gives me perma-grin and a farsighted sense of contentment with life and my place in it. I think it's only happened a few times, and the last time was maybe 9 years ago. Depression has ruled pretty solidly since then, but a couple of those post-movie cousin phenomena are notable aberrations.

Man, I'm with you. If this is a findable feeling, I want to find it again. I'm going to read about all this brainwave stuff. And meditation's something I've been interested in for a while. This is really exciting to think about.

Good luck to you with everything.
posted by kookoobirdz at 8:39 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't know what it's called, but it's why people who talk & eat in the movies are so annoying -- their noise is interferring with what might possibly be one of these focus-and-clarity movie experiences.
posted by Rash at 9:16 PM on June 18, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for all these excellent answers. I've marked the ones that I found most appealing personally but I do appreciate all the different perspectives people have brought here.

There are so many things that are unusual about the experience of sitting for two hours watching a movie (possibly specifically an action movie) in the theater and so many different facets of the experience I have described that it's hard to sort everything out, and the way that the answers have divided up the problem makes it easier for me to think about.

I received an interesting answer through email in which someone pointed out that the effect may be something to do with the direct stimulation of the brain by flashing lights. This might help to explain the fact that it is so much more characteristic of movie theaters as opposed to watching on the small screen.

My short term plan is to make a point of hitting the movies as often as I can over the next few weeks and see if a pattern emerges. I'll also pick up one or two really compelling books and compare the experience of a couple of hours lost in reading with what happens in the movies. I'll hold off on the meds for a while, so long as it seems like I might figure out a way of fixing the problem without them. I'll post back in here in a month or so.

Thanks again.
posted by teleskiving at 2:22 AM on June 19, 2006

Hey one last thing. They're kind of hard to find, but see if you can see some meaningful movies too. It sounds like you've already identified that testosterone movies seem to be what do it for you, and are theorizing that it may just be the flashing lights or loss of self, but I'm wondering if powerful, emotionally involving movies might do it too. Those specifically are what did it for me. It's not every day that powerful, grand, top-quality movies granting life perspective are in theaters though, so that might be tough.
posted by kookoobirdz at 6:30 AM on June 19, 2006

Coiming late to this fascinating thread, but here is another thought that you may find helpful. You may want to look at Zen. The practice of zen is to see the world with a clear and focused mind (for a cheesy movie about it that had the same effect on me as yours did see the peaceful warrior, most of the philsophy there is zen). Zen is about learning to clear all the noise in your head out so you can experience the world very very directly. One analogy that is commonly used is that your mind is like a mirrror. When you are a baby, you have no words for things, no concepts, and you experiene them very directly. As you get older, you layer interpretation into everything - this person is fat so they are lazy, this person is skinny so they are hard working, this person is black, that person is white and so on. But the mirror is also clouded with all your anxiety and fears and worries. The more you come to live in the present moment, the more you realize that the past is over and the future is not yet come, why are you worrying?

Sports, movies, and other intense activities give you a taste of living in zen world because when you are having an intense activity you live in the present moment and you enjoy only that moment. You don't worry about the past - what happened at work yesterday or whether you embarrased yourself at the grocery store, and you don't worry about the future - whehter you will make that deadline or whether the person you find attractive, instead you have to be in the present moment because you will crash your bike or hit a tree (if you are skiing or something).

Zen is about clearing the mirror and taking away all the interpretation. Its about living in mindfulness every moment and appreciating and living it fully. Usually it begins with mindful breathing. Alot of the Thich Nhat Hahn (he is a zen master from Vietnam) stuff is very accessible because he begins with walking meditation rather than sitting meditation (which tends to be hard on inflexible, restless westerners).

If this appeals, I would suggest the following books:

Stepping into Freedom, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, and the famous ten oxherding pictures (I really really like this version).
posted by zia at 7:19 AM on June 19, 2006

Nothing much to add, other than that I frequently experience the same thing, but it's almost always when I exit a film in a movie theatre, rather than when I flip off a great movie I watched on the TV screen. Maybe the hypnosis factor is higher when watching the same movie on the big screen?
posted by Amizu at 8:21 AM on June 19, 2006

I'm also coming late to this thread, and my answer is going to echo a few of the many great answers you've already gotten, but from a slightly different perspective, so I hope it's still useful.

In writing Star Wars, George Lucas was very influenced by Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which looked at stories from multiple cultures around the world and throughout history, and tried to extract the archetypal features that all stories have. Lucas tried to craft Star Wars to fit into Campbell's mode, and given how incredibly successful Star Wars was, ever since, it has been accepted wisdom in Hollywood studios that a film needs to follow this model to be successful. There is at least one very successful book that is specifically aimed at film writers who want to apply Campbell's theories to their screenplays.

Many writers--myself included--feel that this insistence on Campbell's "hero's journey" as the only model for a screenplay has become kind of predictable and formulaic. But if a certain story form has been powerful for centuries, it may be that we are hard wired to respond to it. And that brings me to my answer to your question: many modern Hollywood films (especially the big blockbuster ones) are specifically designed to tap into this atavistic need for a specific kind of story. That might be what you're responding to.
posted by yankeefog at 8:34 AM on June 19, 2006

Ah yes, I just remembered this article about a shaman's view of Predator. This is a little more on the guided dream/catharsis angle, only dealing with film journey as wholesale breakdown and reintegration of the consciousness. Food for thought.

Also some thoughts on cinema vs tv; there is a great deal of habit attached with going to the cinema that is useful for encouraging meditative single-mindedness - expecting to sit quietly, not planning to get up or move around, and moreover the pure pavlovian submission to the rhythms of the gigantic images and consuming sound. And of course cinema lacks the distractions found in the home, and is removed from any kind of stimuli that might remind you of normal life (except within the movie itself).
posted by MetaMonkey at 8:51 AM on June 19, 2006

Wow I thought I was the only one... I too get those feelings and it's just an incredible state of mind. I feel so fulfilled, empowered and yet at peace with the world. I think it's best experienced with friends, and afterwards as we walk out of the theatre we have that elevated banter about the movie, and (I assume) everyone feels the same. It's a tremendous feeling.

I find the feeling is strongest when I've identified strongly with the protagonist and their struggle with the situation.

(hah! pavlovian submission... I love this guy in the previous answer...)
posted by mattydavy at 1:03 AM on June 22, 2006

Sensory deprivation. Sit in a darkroom for 2 1/2 hours, and you'll get the same effect. Watch the same movie with the lights on, and you won't get the effect. A good movie deprives you of your thought as well as of your senses. You get the same effect when you have been out in nature, and come back to civilization. Deprive yourself of food for a while, and eating becomes like an acid experience. In Japan, a common treatment for depression is several days of sensory deprivation. Deprive yourself of anything from food to sex and your senses become starved for it.
posted by zackdog at 9:31 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

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