One of the best-kept secrets in mental health is that watching movies can be good for you. How do movies heal? In this post, I’m going to explore Cinema Therapy.
Cinema, as an art form, generates empathy by inviting viewers to identify with film characters and plot themes. Through watching an appropriate mental health movie, vicarious empathy can be aroused, as the viewer can more easily identify and describe strong emotions about reoccurring issues in a relatively quick and profound way.
What is Cinema Therapy? Cinema therapy is the clinical use of movies as a top-line mental health intervention. Cinema therapy offers a catalytic, multi-sensory impact on thoughts, feelings, and values. Watching movies can activate areas of the brain involved in emotional processing, empathetic responses, and problem-solving.
From a neuroscience perspective, the effectiveness of Cinema Therapy depends on how intensely the client resonates with the movie’s plot, and how skillfully the film was acted, directed, and edited.
Therapists may “prescribe” certain movies to view as homework or even screen movie clips in session, as a clinical intervention.
Movies and neuroscience
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have examined brain activity while people watched movies.
And in 2008, researchers discovered that certain movies have an enormous impact on brain activity and eye movements… but other movies… less so (Hasson, U., et al. (2008).
Researchers were able to see the different areas of the brain light up as the movie impacted the thoughts and feelings of the viewer.
How can Cinema Therapy heal?
I’ve seen several studies documenting the effectiveness of Cinema Therapy with diverse populations and distinct presenting problems. What struck me was how relevant some of these studies are to our global pandemic.
For example, in a small 2010 study, researchers used Cinema Therapy over six individual therapy sessions to help three preadolescent-aged children whose parents were divorcing.
In addition to asking questions about how they reacted to the film, therapists also used expressive techniques such as art, storytelling, and drama.
All three children showed improvement in their ability to recognize, identify, and process their emotions. They also became more collaborative and improved their coping skills (Marsick, E., 2010).
A heartbreaking study by Wesley Buskirk discussed the special problems of seriously ill and traumatized children. Here is the conclusion of the study:
Evocative cinema therapy allows children with chronic health conditions to find correlations between the real conflicts they are experiencing and the fictional conflicts of movie characters. If cinema therapy is practiced effectively, child medical patients’ need for comfort, expression, and self-identification will be successfully fulfilled, ultimately shortening their road to recovery.
Cinema Therapy parses movies into 2 operational categories: cathartic, and evocative cinema therapy. The remaining films are consigned to popcorn status, and even those offer the comforts of distraction and escapism.
Mental health movies and myths
The most conspicuous role of Cinema Therapy is as a powerful emotional change agent.
Many films are morality tales. Some also serve as allegories, in much the same way as do legends, myths, and stories.
Neuroscience points out that the impact of cinema on the brain is a force multiplier across 7 different modes of information processing.
Cinema Therapy has the potential for working quickly because watching movies can engage the brain.
There are 7 pathways to change; story (plot), language (dialogue), the visual-spatial subtexts (pictures, colors, and archetypal symbols), the musical (movie sound effects and soundtrack music), the temporal, the story arc, moving forward (in an asynchronous fashion), and the meta-emotional (the sense of omniscience and perfect knowledge).
The hero’s journey and healing by revelation…
The great Myths are epic narratives that seek to explain the role of human beings in creation’s master plan. Some movies are uniquely resonant because they tell another version of the Hero’s Journey…the trans-cultural trope of uncovered virtue and the discovery of our authentic self.
In order for cinema therapy to truly exist the filmmaker must have an internal search, question or problem to solve inside himself but that relates with the rest of humanity or with specific community.
Once the filmmaker and his crew engage in the process of filmmaking, they start healing by the revelation and situations that happen along the process of making a film.
In the end, the result of that process will be a medicine for all the viewers as human beings. But everything starts with the deep intention that the filmmaker has when making the film. Anghelo Taylor writing in The CinemaTherapy Manifesto.
Cinema therapy reframes emotion, relaxes judgement, and expands empathy
Cinema heroes and (anti-heroes) can help us to develop inner strength and situational awareness.
Perhaps the greatest promise of Cinema Therapy is the experience of relaxed judgments and reframed emotional filters.
We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised.
We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people.
And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. Roger Ebert
Similar to music, dance, or art therapies, Cinema Therapy is a distinct tool, ideally used to support the overall clinical goals.
How does Cinema Therapy work?… Mental health movies as a transformative experience
Cinema Therapy can move beyond traditional talk therapies because it’s multi-sensory and can quickly trigger perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes.
Watching cinema can activate areas of the brain associated with emotional processing, reflection, problem-solving, and empathy.
Movie themes can resonate deeply with people, promoting reflection and insight.
Movies can unveil the unspoken, shift mood, and evoke an empathetic response.
And a powerful story can help you grow closer together.
Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story, or if a story can be told about it. Isaak Dinesen
The importance of stories in mental health movies
It’s human nature to live our lives through stories…the stories others tell about us…the stories we tell others and the story we tell ourselves. Our Stories are the custodians of our lives; they organize and reveal our identity, relationships, and the scope of what we believe is possible for ourselves and those close to us.
Some therapists believe that if we “thicken” these stories, new meanings can emerge from a reflecting process. A good therapist would explore the connections between context, actions, and meaning.
I see Cinema Therapy as an experiential process through which couples could identify with an expanded story that reclaims and restores a more adaptive and resilient self while noticing and being curious about how their partner might have a different viewing experience.
During COVID, there has probably never been such a promising tool for online couples therapy as Cinema Therapy.
Evocative, prescriptive, and cathartic approaches
Birgit Wolz Ph.D. was born in Germany and has lived in the United States since 1989. Dr. Wolz is one of the giants of Cinema Therapy. Her 2005 book, E-Motion Picture Magic is an interesting overview of her approach.
Her patented Cinema Alchemy Model describes 3 distinct approaches to Cinema Therapy:
- The Evocative approach offers an entryway into the deep unconscious layers.
- Prescriptive approaches focus on a specific clinical benchmark, (i.e. learning communication, breaking through denial, or learning by proxy, etc).
- And finally, Cathartic approaches…laughter, for example, and tears, both offer different self-evident forms of catharsis.
Birgit has published many articles on the healing power of movies in peer-reviewed journals. She has presented on Cinema Therapy worldwide and offers clinician extensive training online.
Groundbreaking research on Cinema Therapy slashes the divorce rate in half
I was excited to discover that couples can shore up and deepen their relationships over the critical first 3 years of marriage simply by watching movies together and discussing them.
Specifically, the study subjects were asked to discuss how their own relationships compare with the movie couple.
Gottman tells us that the way a conversation begins is the way it typically ends, and that is a conspicuous strength to Cinema Therapy.
This is because Cinema Therapy is an example of state-dependent learning; the conversations can begin safely, as emotional reactions to the imaginary, (but intimately understood), characters are explored and described. The couple can then ease into a comparative conversation about their own relationship with less criticism or defensiveness.
How Cinema Therapy and mental health movies saves marriages
Yes, watching movies from a carefully selected list of films, and then discussing them can help couples build emotional intimacy. One of the ways I suspect this may work in couples therapy is that men with normative male alexithymia enjoy a safe context for discussing emotions.
For the sake of simplicity, I call these carefully curated films “mental health movies.”
A movie is a non-threatening way to get the conversation started. Dr. Ronald Rogge
The power of a conversation
A few months ago I talked to Dr. Rogge about the power of a Cinema Therapy conversation.
Ron pointed out to me that, unlike real life, movies offer us perfect knowledge (about the story arc and characters), as our real feelings can be discussed through the safe filter of well-known, but imaginary film characters.
Discussing the emotional differences between the couple on the screen and the couple watching helps connect emotion-bearing synapses and expand emotional vocabulary.
Ron described the process of how couples had a conversation after watching the mental health movie;
Most of those discussions happened when the couple was at home. At the outset of the 2013 study, we don’t know how long those discussions might be. When we noticed that the first discussion happened in the lab…those discussions generally ranged from 30 to 60 minutes.
I helped run a bunch of those sessions… and I didn’t notice a difference… the couples all enjoyed the discussions and it didn’t to seem to matter by how long they were, as long as they were both in the same room. At the time, we were imagining Cinema Therapy as an adjunct to couples therapy.
We ‘d tell our couples, if the discussion starts becoming defensive or becoming a bit caustic or hostile, set that movie aside, come back a week later, and we’ll start over with a different movie.
So if it feels like they’re falling back into those less helpful or less constructive patterns, if they start escalating, then probably they should end that discussion.
But as long as the conversations are feeling productive and not blaming or attacking, then each couple can pick their own length of time that they’d like stay with. We usually give the guidance of just 30 to 45 minutes so that in hopes of making it less scary… for the husbands… Dr. Ron Rogge
Cinema Therapy normalizes vulnerability
What surprised the researchers was how the couples in the study described the sequencing of their experience.
Couples reported that if they first discussed the movie couple onscreen, it was easier to identify the patterns of interaction that were a regular source of tension. Cinema Therapy normalized vulnerability which providing a concurrent feeling of safety and detachment for both spouses as they connected the dots from the movie’s narrative to their own lived experience.
Now a spouse can say “like the (husband) in the movie…I noticed something about myself…He talks over his wife…and Yeah, I can see that sometimes I do that to you.”
Now if our couple was just having one of their typical discussions, they…it may take a lot longer to understand one another… or they may revert to their “Demon Dance” and never get there at all. But mental health movies make that a lot easier when they evoke powerful emotions in an empathetic resonance.
Ironically, through empathy with imaginary people, Cinema Therapy makes it more comfortable for both partners to take themselves on, acknowledge their issues, and be vulnerable. This is the evocative power of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy is a powerful tool to help couples enter into intimate conversations. But don’t skip your couples therapy session to binge on Netflix. You’ll get more out of Cinema Therapy with the careful guidance of a good, science-based couples therapist.
Dr. Birgit Wolz cautions us that “there’s no one definition of cinema therapy.”
Sometimes you watch a movie just for the emotional release, which can include watching a movie just to have a good cry.
Cathartic Cinema Therapy is rather heavy on the Kleenex, and somewhat light on the insight.
It’s more about the experience and less about the therapy.
Cathartic Cinema is often used early to “clear the emotional decks” with presenting problems such as depression or anxiety.
Cathartic Cinema Therapy comes pretty naturally, and most of us don’t need a therapist to have a good cry…or a good laugh for that matter…but a therapist is always good to have in a catharsis…
Mental health movies as homework
On the other hand, a skilled couples therapist would be more inclined to prescribe certain movies as homework to help spouses learn more about themselves while acquiring insight into how they respond to their partner under different situations. We usually get this work done more quickly when couples do an online couples therapy intensive.
Once your couples therapist has completed your assessment, they might assign certain films at specific points in the couples therapy, or either of you might want to discuss a mental health movie that impacted you.
Cinema Therapy is a powerful tool for reframing and building a new perspective. The end goal of Cinema Therapy is to offer couples a powerful way to re-wire their brains so they can more easily entertain new thoughts and experience new emotions.
Cinema Therapy may emerge as a reliable therapeutic tool during COVID. We certainly have a lot of feelings to process on our shared predicament.
Not every therapist uses Cinema Therapy, and mental health movies may not necessarily be a part of your treatment plan. But if you’ve had a cathartic experience together watching a movie, feel free to mention it to your couples therapist, and ask if Cinema Therapy is right for you.
What I’d like you to take away from this discussion is that watching a movie and talking about it can be a powerful and easy way to share your thoughts and feeling with or without a therapist. But if you’d like some help…it’s never been easier to get good couples therapy…online.
Change your story…book your intensive today
- Buskirk, Wesley D. (2017) “Movies in Medicine: Cinema Therapy for Children Suffering From Chronic Health Conditions,” Cinesthesia: Vol. 6: Iss. 1, Article 4. Available at: http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cine/vol6/iss1/4
- Hasson, U., Landesman, O., Knappmeyer, B., Vallines, I., Rubin N., & Heeger, D.J. (2008) Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film. Projections. 1-28. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/proj.2008.020102
- Marsick, E. (2010). Cinematherapy with preadolescents experiencing parental divorce: A collective case study. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 37(4). 311-318. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0197455610000687
- Robertson, B. (2016, March 29). All things connect; The integration of mindfulness, cinema, and psychotherapy. Counseling Today. Retrieved from https://ct.counseling.org/2016/03/all-things-connect-the-integration-of-mindfulness-cinema-and-psychotherapy/
- Yang, H., & Lee, Y. (2005). The use of single-session cinematherapy and aggressive behavioral tendencies among adopted children. American Journal of Recreation Therapy, 4, 35-44.
Originally published October 9, 2020.