The effect of visual and musical suspense on brain activation and memory during naturalistic viewing

Biol Psychol. 2017 Oct;129:73-81. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2017.07.020. Epub 2017 Jul 29.


We tested the hypothesis that, during naturalistic viewing, moments of increasing narrative suspense narrow the scope of attentional focus. We also tested how changes in the emotional congruency of the music would affect brain responses to suspense, as well as subsequent memory for narrative events. In our study, participants viewed suspenseful film excerpts while brain activation was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Results indicated that suspense produced a pattern of activation consistent with the attention-narrowing hypothesis. For example, we observed decreased activation in the anterior calcarine sulcus, which processes the visual periphery, and increased activity in nodes of the ventral attention network and decreased activity in nodes of the default mode network. Memory recall was more accurate for high suspense than low suspense moments, but did not differ by soundtrack congruency. These findings provide neural evidence that perceptual, attentional, and memory processes respond to suspense on a moment-by-moment basis.

Keywords: Attention; Emotion; Music; Narrative transportation; Suspense.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Motion Pictures
  • Music / psychology*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods*
  • Young Adult