What goes on in the brain during a 3D movie?

by Boston Children's Hospital staff on February 26, 2010

Michael RichMedia expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed if parents are legally responsible when their teens engage in sexting.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I took my sons to see Avatar over vacation, and while I sat there with giant 3D glasses on, I wondered if scientists know anything about whether 3D affects how children process the experience of a movie?
Thrilled by 3D in Wilmington, MA

A: Dear Thrilled by 3D,

This question gets at the heart of what’s interesting and exciting about three-dimensional (3D) movies. They absolutely affect your children’s experience of movie, much as they affect yours. Why? Because the more heavily the brain is involved with sensory motor processing, the less energy it has for other tasks.

To understand why that’s true, look at something a certain distance from yourself with just one eye, and then the other; it will appear to move. That’s because you are constantly synthesizing the two different two-dimensional (2D) images from your two eyes into a single 3D image. The way a 3D movie works is that two separate 2D images are projected onscreen at the same time.  The glasses you wear block out one image or the other so that each eye sees only what was designed for it to see, which helps your brain combine them into one 3D image.

So what does your brain do when you’re sitting in a theatre, looking at a giant screen, wearing 3D glasses, swimming in surround sound, and processing the 24 images that flip by per second?  Your brain dutifully processes those stimuli—and does little else. In fact, your pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control, future thinking, and moral choices, is basically inactivated in this process. That’s part of why you “get lost” in the movie.

These facts can make for an immersive movie experience, which can be quite enjoyable—and also quite overwhelming. For children, the extra processing that their brains have to do may make them more vulnerable to the content. In other words, if something in the movie would have scared them in 2D, it will likely be even scarier in 3D. But children’s fear is an issue to consider with any movie, so read up on the movie’s content before you go, whether it’s 2D or 3D.

Something else worth mentioning is that many people experience nausea during a 3D movie. That’s because the signals that your brain is receiving from your eyes say that you are moving in relation to your immediate surroundings, but your inner ear (in charge of balance) is saying that you’re not moving. If the nausea is not so bad that you’d avoid 3D movies all together, one way to reduce these feelings during a 3D movie is to close your eyes or look away from the screen.  This will remove the competing stimuli and help reorient you in actual space.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

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7 comments

  • Eric

    I work for a hospital and was searching other hospitals for blog ideas and stumbled upon yours. This was a great article. It’s nice to see a hospital blog that centers around real, practical issues, instead of using posts as another means of promotion.

  • Eric

    I work for a hospital and was searching other hospitals for blog ideas and stumbled upon yours. This was a great article. It's nice to see a hospital blog that centers around real, practical issues, instead of using posts as another means of promotion.

  • Joe Ray

    hello doctor Rich: I wonder if anyone can look at a picture with one eye and percieve a 3D effect. That the brain can process the image in a way to extrpolate a 3d feel image . Well it is thought .

  • Joe Ray

    hello doctor Rich: I wonder if anyone can look at a picture with one eye and percieve a 3D effect. That the brain can process the image in a way to extrpolate a 3d feel image . Well it is thought .

  • Eddie

    A couple of bone-head parents at my kid’s daycare invited my 4 year old to go see a 3D Movie (the new Shrek in 3D), for a 5 year old’s Birthday Party outing. There’s NO WAY my kid is going. First of all, it is rated 6 years+ and the 3D cannot be good nor appropriate for a 4 year old (with Dragons and edgy humor directed at teens and adults). Some parents out there really NEED to do the proper research BEFOREHAND. I found this article in seconds through Google and knew right away that this Birthday party movie trip wasn’t gonna happen!
    - Thanks Dr. Rich

  • Madison Kraft

    Eddie, if you want your kid to be a kid that loves his parents, loosen up a little on his privileges, shrek is a nice movie and if the humor was bad your kid wouldn’t understand it. :(

  • James

    Madison, you attach love to privileges, love is at the very heart of the vast majority of parents some prior to birth and almost after. You sound like a person that has never been to a country where they have very little money to spend on their children and none for movies and they grow up respectful and love their parents, you seem to be to be materialistic which is part of the western world experience. Shrek is a yiddish word: means Horrible. What a child’s brain interprets the inflow of information and what it sees is not the same as an adults so you actually don’t know what is being imprinted into the child’s brain with 3D. I sad for you that you are not awake to the effect on the brain’s perception of reality by new technologies. I hope you come to know love, as it exists without privileges. Blessings, Jim

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