Lauri Nummenmaa

The Cinematic Brain: Mapping the Human Emotion Circuits with Motion Pictures

Lauri Nummenmaa, Ph.D.

Professor in modeling and medical image processing, Turku PET Centre and Department of Psychology, University of Turku, Finland


I did my undergraduate studies majoring in psychology at University of Turku, Finland. I defended my PhD on neurocognitive mechanisms of social attention at University of Turku in 2006. After that, I worked as a post-doc at the MRC CBU in Cambridge, UK studying neural mechanisms of face perception in Andy Calder’s group. I returned to Finland in 2008, to work as Academy of Finland junior fellow and subsequently as senior fellow at Turku Pet Center and Aalto University. After a four-year appointment as Assistant professor in cognitive neuroscience at Aalto University, I returned to the University of Turku with my laboratory.
Currently I lead the Human Emotion Systems laboratory at Turku PET Centre and Department of Psychology, University of Turku. Our group studies functional and molecular neural mechanisms of human emotions and social interaction in complex, life-like settings with magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, magneto- and electroencephalography and behavioural techniques. I have written over 100 scientific articles on brain basis of emotions and social cognition, and acquired more than 4M€ grant money for our group. Currently our research is funded by the Academy of Finland, The Sigrid Juselius Foundation, and the Emil Aaltonen Foundation.


Emotions promote our well-being in survival-salient situations. They are triggered by biologically relevant signals such as threats and physical harm or rewards including food consumption or social interaction. Yet, also abstract and “simulated” pleasures and threats such as love stories, misfortunes, and tragedies shown in films can trigger powerful emotions in the viewers.  In my talk I present an overview on brain mechanisms supporting human emotions and show how we can use cinema for simulating real life for studying the emotional brain. I present data from our laboratory showing how viewing emotions in films makes individuals to “tune in” with each other, and how specific neurotransmitter systems in the brain govern out vicarious experience of the emotions we see in movies.  Finally, I discuss the origins of our captivation for strong, sometimes also distressing and unpleasant, emotional movies. I propose that we are drawn to affective cinema because it provides a safe simulation environment for preparing to meet actual emotional challenges in real life.