Tuesday, March 8, 2011

This Is Your Brain on Disney

Researchers have suggested that Disney generates a successful experience because our brains are responsive and receptive to art, creativity, storytelling, humor, wit, music, fantasy, and morality, all of which may have been important to social development—and feature heavily in the "Disney experience" in a rather amplified way.

I've only been to Disney World once. A few years ago, S and I went for the first time and while I may go back, I'm definitely still recovering. Disney marketing isn't kidding when they say it's the happiest/most magical place on earth—it's intense. And the experience stays with you. But people are definitely drawn to the Disney franchise. Disneyland receives approximately 10 million visitors annually (1). And lots of folks are repeat visitors. It may not be for everyone—I know people who absolutely refuse to have anything to do with the magic, as well as some who aren't comfortable around costumed representatives, but they seem to be in the minority given the volume these places experience. 

Humans have large brains, which are really expensive to produce. Researchers have not yet determined why our brains are so large, but everything from diet to climate change to social competition to changes in gestation has been proposed. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist, has suggested that big brains are a result of sexual selection. He argues that the brain is "an entertainment system that evolved to stimulate other brains" in an effort to attract mates (2). Miller's "mating mind hypothesis" states
the large size of the brain evolved because mates (in most cases females) favoured a mate (in most cases males) with increased abilities to produce such aspects of culture as art, creativity, storytelling, humour, wit, music, fantasy, and morality (3).
These "courtship tools" are meant to attract sexual partners. However, Miller's hypothesis is not supported by the actual development of the human brain, which does not display the characteristics of a sexually selected trait. Two of the the major points of divergence that researchers Palmer and Coe discuss are the lack of sexual dimorphism and the actual growth of the brain. Male brains do not significantly differ from female brains:
Although there do appear to be clearly evolved sexual differences in specific parts of the brain directly related to mating (e.g., mate preferences, jealousy), there are no similarly striking differences related to production of and responsiveness to the traits he is attempting to explain (art, creativity, storytelling, humour, wit, music, fantasy, and morality) (4).
And if the brain were a sexually selected feature, it would become more prominent after puberty. This isn't the case: The human brain weighs about 25% of its adult weight at birth, and it doubles in weight in about 6 months! At puberty, there isn't another of these types of gains—the brain completes most of its development within the first few years of life.

As an alternative to understanding why specific forms of entertainment are so appealing, Palmer and Coe instead suggest they reflect parenting strategies to influence the behavior of offspring. The "parenting mind hypothesis" proposes that the size of the human brain developed via natural selection in response to parental ability to influence behavior—big brains allowed offspring to store and replicate behaviors modeled by parents that enabled survival and reproduction (5). This latter hypothesis takes into account one possible reason why children develop language skills so early in life: language helps them receive information from their parents, which increases their fitness for survival.

Where does the Disney franchise fit in this discussion? Palmer and Coe propose that Disneyland (which is not Disney World, but the experience is essentially the same, I would imagine: extreme stimulation of the senses) is an extension of the traits that are important to the parenting mind hypothesis:
Although Disneyland and fairy tales in general are often mistakenly seen as mere entertainment, they both clearly provide moral lessons. Pinocchio warns children not to tell a lie. Cinderella tells children that virtue has rewards, and the three pigs teach children about planning and industriousness (6).
They suggest that our susceptibility to these forms of entertainment allow Disneyland—and other forms of art and entertainment—to exist. But I would amend that to say that our potential susceptibility to these traits allows the Disney franchise and other good examples of art, creativity, storytelling, humor, wit, music, fantasy, and morality—such as movies and plays—to be successful because they help us construct (non-sexual) social connections.

One of the things I wish this paper had discussed a bit more was the connection between relationship building and the traits linked to the Disney experience. Art, creativity, storytelling, humor, wit, music, fantasy, and morality may be important elements in the relationships we develop and maintain—not in a sexual sense, but in terms of network building. The researchers touch upon this briefly in their conclusion, and it seems to warrant exploration because it has broad implications in terms of how our social networks are engaged with these traits. When we experience an instance of storytelling or humor or music with someone else, we're creating a bond through that experience that helps define our places within our network relative to each other. Revisiting these experiences could then be an act of reaffirming ties—which could help us understand why people return to Disney theme parks and other forms of creative etc. entertainment. Thoughts?

Photo by Skitterphoto

ResearchBlogging.orgCraig T. Palmer, Kathryn Coe (2010). Parenting, Courtship, Disneyland, and the Human Brain International Journal of Tourism Anthropology, 1 (1), 1-14 : 10.1504/IJTA.2010.036843

1. Palmer and Coe 2010: 2
2. Palmer: 2
3. Palmer: 3
4. Palmer: 4
5. Palmer: 5
6. Palmer: 10

HT to Jason Goldman for originally suggesting this article.


  1. Great post!

    After vowing to never take my children to Disney (of course this was at a time that I didn't even entertain the idea of raising a brood), I made a trip to Disney Land over the summer with my husband and two daughters. I had only been there once before and it was when I was seven so, basically, this was pretty much a new experience for me. My first impression was that this place was a MACHINE! Nothing was out of place, it was spotless, everyone was happy, and you could get whatever you wanted (if you were willing to pay for it - but that is a different issue all together). I was impressed.

    Then, the unexpected happened - I saw the Fairy God Mother from Cinderella and nearly wet myself. The near micturition events continued with seeing the Princesses, Goofy, Pluto, Mickey, Donald, etc. I didn't expect the rush of emotion that I experienced in response to seeing characters. All of a sudden, I was plunged back into childhood and played with my kids as if I was their peer and not their mother. To be honest, I can't wait to go back.

    In general, I find that when I can associate some familiar aspect with a total stranger, I automatically feel a stronger connection, as compared to some dude with whom I have no common interest. Also, being able to share a Disney connection with my kids was pretty awesome and I know these memories have helped to strengthen our bonds.

    With regard to brain development, I wonder if those of us who experience the stronger "Disney-induced" emotions or have intricate social networks are hard-wired to be that way. The brain and how it works (at least what we know about it) is incredible!

    At any rate, these are all interesting topics and I look forward to reading the follow-ups to these studies.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story Jeanne. I had a similar experience at Disney World. It was miserably hot when we went, and around 2 pm one day, I was just sort of done and in "trooper" mode (i.e., I wasn't going to complain, but I really just wanted to go back to our hotel room). We were in line for a ride and then Winnie the Pooh walked by. Winnie the Pooh is my all time favorite Disney character. I knew the Hundred Acre Wood like the back of my hand as a kid. I learned to read with his books. I still have one of his stuffed bears. I left the line! Seriously. I climbed under a rope and followed him to his meet and greet ... and it was like I was 4 years old again. And I surprised myself by nearly bursting into tears. It changed the whole trip for me, and it's probably the reason that I will go back.

    You ask a really good question about whether some people might be hard wired to have stronger network connections. There are social benefits to being able to connect with others, so I can see it being a part of our evolutionary history, but we just don't know enough about the brain yet! Hopefully, we will at some point.

  3. Great post and comments. I have always been a Disney lover and taking my 2 year old daughter for the first time will be something that I remember for the rest of my life. I cried when we took our turn on my favorite ride "small world" because it was also my now deceased grandmother's favorite ride and I felt a bond that crossed 3 generations in one activity. I wonder if some cultures are hard wired for these stronger connections and not just individuals?

  4. I think I want to retract the term "hard wired" and replace it with "more inclined." I don't think that biologically we wired differently per se, but it is possible that for cultural reasons, some groups may be more inclined to connect in these ways. Culture is the product of combinations of social and ecological factors that shape our daily lives and beliefs. It is certainly believable that certain shared experiences may result in a sense that entertainment activities should result in tighter bonds. However, we can discount individual preferences and behaviors either. It can be rather maddening overall :)

  5. I'm not sure how much we connect to the story-telling or how much is about other facets of our parenting experience. Jeanne, I'm glad you posted about your near pants-wetting experience, because when I was there with my kids about 3 weeks ago I was astonished to find myself waving and smiling at PRINCESS TIANA like a freaking lunatic. I think I was more excited than the kids were. And let me tell you I am a complete buzzkill about Disney movies. I find them predictable, uncreative, and uninspiring (Princess and the Frog included). I think they will somehow cripple my children emotionally when it comes time to pick a mate. But somehow I was magically whipped into the group mania.

    I spent a lot of time pondering why the atmosphere at Disneyland differs from other theme parks, and I am hitting on some of the things Jeanne has hit on. Disney takes special care that the illusion of perfect control and safety is always maintained. (It is an imperfect system--take the bathrooms for example.) Parents can really let their guards down for the most part, which is a really powerful thing in our society. The ability for the kids (and apparently the grownups) to blur the lines between reality and fantasy are also enabled by ridiculously friendly and helpful staff (yet not by alcohol--a blessing and a curse).