Gasp! At the movies, your breaths reveal your emotions

Study finds a link between movie scenes’ emotional tone and the chemicals moviegoers exhale

The chemicals in people’s breaths give away their emotions as they watch movies, a new study suggests.

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Spoiler alert: Scientists can figure out a movie’s emotional tone from the gasps of its audience. Sure, the sounds are a cue. But so are the chemicals that viewers exhale each time they sigh and scream. These gases could point the way to a subtle form of human communication, a new study suggests.

“There’s an invisible concerto going on,” says Jonathan Williams. “You hear the music and see the pictures, but you don’t realize there are chemical signals in the air.” And they, too, could be affecting you,” says Williams, who led the study. As an atmospheric chemist, he studies the chemical makeup of the air around us. He works at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.

Williams started out measuring the air in a soccer stadium. He wanted to see if the fans’ exhaled breaths might affect levels of greenhouse gases in the air. (Greenhouse gases are those that can ultimately help warm the planet by absorbing heat.) Carbon dioxide, which people breathe out, is one example. And the answer was no, he found — at least on a small scale. But he noticed that levels of carbon dioxide and other gases shifted wildly whenever the crowd cheered. That got him wondering. Could the gases people exhale be influenced by emotions?

To find out, he went to the movies.

Williams and his coworkers measured air samples collected over six weeks in two movie theaters. Overall, 9,500 moviegoers watched 16 films. They included a mix of comedy, romance, action and horror films. Among them: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Carrie, and Walking with Dinosaurs. The researchers gave scenes from the movies such labels as “suspense,” “laughter” and “crying.” Then they looked for hundreds of chemical compounds in the air that showed up as people were watching particular movie scenes.

And certain scenes had distinct chemical “fingerprints,” the researchers reported May 10 in Scientific Reports.

Scenes that had people laughing or on the edge of their seats were especially distinctive. During screenings of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, levels of carbon dioxide and isoprene (EY-so-preen) peaked at two suspenseful moments. Because isoprene is involved in muscle movement, the researchers think tense movie moments likely led to its spikes. Williams and colleagues think a bump up in carbon dioxide was due to the viewers’ increased pulse and breathing rates.

The researchers had to account for chemicals in the air that may have had no link to onscreen action. People emit chemicals from their perfume and shampoo. They can even exhale chemicals related to what they snacked on (such as popcorn or beer). During screenings of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, for instance, the researchers noticed a spike in ethanol linked to a scene in which Mitty orders a beer. Williams speculates that the scene reminded moviegoers to take a swig of their own alcoholic beverages.

Scientists need more data to make stronger links between human emotions and what’s in their breath. But Williams can see potential practical uses. Companies, for instance, could quickly measure the air during tests to see how people feel about new products. He pictures future studies recording other body variables as well. These might include heart rate and body temperature, for instance. “It’s something to investigate.”

Cassie Martin is an associate editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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