By Bronwyn Robertson

Why are movies, television shows, cartoons and videos so entertaining? Why do they have the power to engross viewers for hours on end, move them to both laughter and tears, and even inspire their insights and aspirations? Watching movies, television shows, cartoons and videos can be profoundly engaging and, in fact, quite therapeutic. It has even become a form of therapy: cinematherapy.

International research spanning more than half a century has shown that when carefully integrated into therapy, many forms of cinema can be highly effective. In recent studies, the movie The Transporters was used to enhance empathy in youth with autism spectrum disorders and Zombieland was used by the department of pediatrics at MD Anderson Cancer Center to enhance adolescent cancer treatment. The Lord of the Rings was used to treat adolescent depression.

“Movies have an important therapeutic function for each individual, especially when integrated in a specific framework of counseling and psychotherapy,” researchers noted in a 2014 study which used group cinematherapy to decrease anxiety in adolescents. “The encounter with some characters or sequences from the movie helps the client identify his own blockages, his present needs, his concealed and unspoken desires or expectations.”

Through cinematherapy, individuals can safely identify and explore characters, themes and situations which are most meaningful and relevant for them. Careful consideration of cinematic selections is needed, however. The selections used in therapy must resonate deeply with the individual and be based on his or her developmental level, specific needs, strengths, challenges, and aspirations.

As a licensed therapist, I began integrating the use of television shows, videos and cartoons in my work more than a decade ago. I have found that cinematherapy is highly effective with individuals of all ages and backgrounds, and is especially effective for children, youth and families in foster care, and pre and post adoption, and for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Super Girl, Maleficent, The Fosters, Frozen, Inside Out and The Wizard of Oz are among the cinematic selections which have helped the individuals I have worked with explore and process their own feelings and thoughts about foster care, adoption and disability, and to enhance communication and bonding within their families.

Cinematherapy is particularly well-suited for work with foster care and adoptive families, and individuals with disabilities. As noted in “Disabilities, Foster Care and Adoption on Television: 7 Shows to Binge-Watch This Summer” and “11 Films that Increased Our Understanding of Disabilities”, there is a wealth of binge-watchable movies and TV shows that feature characters with disabilities, and foster and adoptive families. These cinematic selections are among the tools through individuals can explore, identify and process their experiences, thoughts and feelings.

Cinematherapy can also be helpful for individuals who have difficulty with more traditional talk therapy, such as young children, individuals who have experienced trauma, or individuals with intellectual disabilities. Researchers have noted that cinematherapy moves beyond talk therapy because it is multi-sensory and engages the visual, auditory and others senses.

Neuroscientist Uri Hasson has noted that the multisensory nature of cinema provides viewers with an experience “that evolves over time, grabbing their attention and triggering a sequence of perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes.” A pioneer in the field of neurocinematics, which studies the impact of cinema on brain functioning, Hasson has found that our brains are actually “hard-wired” to be moved by movies. His brain scan studies have shown that watching movies activates areas of the brain associated with empathy, and emotional, motor and sensory processing. His studies have also found that when a group of people, such as a family, watch a movie or television show together, a phenomenon known as neural synchrony may occur. During neural synchrony, viewers’ brain wave patterns actually become synchronized. In other words, viewers’ brains begin functioning in unison. This can provide a collective experience through which viewers can better connect with the experiences of others.

Cinematherapy can provide a unique therapeutic experience through which individuals can more fully process their thoughts and feelings and bond with fellow viewers. Whether it is used in individual, group or family therapy, cinematherapy can be powerfully effective in promoting healing, insight and personal growth.

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Bronwyn Robertson is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Tidewater who has more than 20 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. She specializes in integrative psychotherapy using mindfulness-based, trauma-focused, cognitive-behavioral, expressive, play and somatic interventions for adoptive youth and their families. She is certified as an adoption-competent therapist and adoption competency trainer via the Center for Adoption Support and Education and has lectured and published internationally on psychotherapy for trauma and anxiety and on mindfulness-oriented therapies including integrative, mindfulness-oriented cinematherapy. Learn more about our counseling services here.

References
All things connect: The integration of mindfulness, cinema and psychotherapy. Bronwyn Robertson (2016). Counseling Today, April.
How watching the movie Zombieland helps treatment of cancer in teenagers. Subbiah, V (2012). Journal of Cancer Education, March.
The effects of a cinema-therapy group on diminishing anxiety in young people. Sorina Danela Dumtrache Procedia (2014). Social and Behavioral Sciences, 127, 717 – 721.