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You’re 30 minutes into your in-flight movie — or, if you’re watching Love Actually, just 5 minutes in — when a swift, sudden wave of emotion overtakes you. It begins with silent tears, then builds to snot-ridden sniffles. You don’t expect it. In fact, you’ve seen the film many, many times before without so much as a long blink. So why, while in flight, did the movie affect you the way it did?
The short answer is: science has little idea why and researchers haven’t really done much to delve deeper into the subject.
Virgin Atlantic, though not-so-scientific, did try to figure out whether it’s true that people get more contemplative and emotional during flights. The company conducted a U.K.-based survey on Facebook in 2011 for which 55 percent of respondents said that they found themselves getting particularly emotional on long flights, according to DailyMail. Some men even said they covered their faces with blankets to hide their tears. The findings lead to Virgin adding “emotional health warnings” before in-flight films that contained emotionally-sensitive subject matter.
‘“On a flight we’re isolated, leaving loved ones or aching to be reunited with them,” Virgin Atlantic’s film critic Jason Solomons told DailyMail. “We’re nervous, we’re tired, we might have had a drink at a time we usually wouldn’t. You don’t really want to land with mascara running down your cheeks or bloodshot eyes but you can’t help it.”
Sure, that’s one possible explanation. Alcoholic beverages, sleepiness, and mere lack of distractions have also been offered as reasons for these enhanced sentimental responses. But without concrete data on the subject, it’s hard to come to any real conclusion.
BrainDecoder spoke to clinical psychologist Elaine Iljon Foreman, who believes flyers’ emotional responses have to do with the anxiety they feel over losing control in flight. Once you board an aircraft you’re forced to place your safety in the hands of flight attendants and pilots, who are complete strangers. “On an airplane, you’re herded on and off; you’re told when to do this and that; you’re not in control of the environment,” Forman said. “You’re also away from the safety of familiar places and people.”
With all of these different theories, one thing remains: there’s no scientific evidence that people are actually more emotional while on flights. And, while the phenomenon may not be scientifically-proven, many frequent flyers say there’s no denying the enhanced emotions are absolutely, tangibly real.
“I almost always cry on long flights,” travel blogger and full-time traveler Stephanie Craig told Culture Trip. “There’s something about being alone, within the cocoon of the plane, surrounded by strangers, where I can really experience whatever sorrow is down at my emotional core. Sometimes it’s about guys, sometimes it’s about family, or work. Whatever the topic, I feel it all over again. It’s like I feel every bit of the thing, from beginning to end, but at the end I have processed it a new way.”