Movie viewers’ exhaled chemicals tell if scene is funny, scary

People may wear their emotions on their breath

movie audience

BREATHTAKING  Researchers in Germany can predict whether a movie scene is funny or suspenseful from gases that audiences exhale into the theater air. 


Spoiler alert: Scientists can gauge a film’s emotional tenor from the gasps of its audience. Sure, the audible sounds are a cue, but so are the chemicals exhaled with each sigh and scream. These gases could point the way to a subtle form of human communication.

“There’s an invisible concerto going on,” says Jonathan Williams, an atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. “You hear the music and see the pictures, but you don’t realize there are chemical signals in the air.”

Williams started out measuring the air in a soccer stadium to see if human breath had a noticeable impact on the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The answer was no, at least on a small scale. But he noticed that levels of carbon dioxide and other gases fluctuated wildly whenever the crowd cheered. That got him wondering: Maybe humans’ emissions are influenced by emotions. So he went to the movies.

Williams and colleagues measured air samples collected over six weeks in two movie theaters in Germany. Overall, 9,500 moviegoers watched 16 films — a mix of comedy, romance, action and horror that included The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Walking With Dinosaurs and Carrie. The researchers classified scenes from the movies using such labels as “suspense,” “laughter” and “crying.” Then they looked for associations between movie scenes and hundreds of compounds in the air.

Certain scenes, primarily those that had people laughing or on the edge of their seats, had distinct chemical fingerprints, the researchers write May 10 in Scientific Reports. During screenings of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, CO2 and isoprene emissions consistently peaked at two suspenseful moments. Williams and colleagues attribute the spikes in CO2 to increased pulse and breathing rate. The spikes in isoprene — a chemical associated with muscle action — were probably due to tense movie moments.

The researchers had to account for chemicals wafting into the air that may not have been a reaction to onscreen action. People emit chemicals from their perfume, shampoo and even the snacks they munch such as popcorn or beer. During screenings of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, for instance, the researchers noticed a spike in ethanol corresponding with a scene in which Mitty orders a beer. Williams speculates that the scene reminded movie-goers to take a swig of their own alcoholic beverages.

Scientists need more data to make robust connections between human emotion and chemical emissions. But Williams sees potential practical applications. Marketers, for example, could quickly measure the air during consumer testing to see how people feel about products. He envisions future studies involving heart rate, body temperature and other physiological measurements.

“We have scratched the surface and it’s made a funny smell,” he says. “It’s something to investigate.”

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing 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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