Not Just Special Effects

Brad Callos
September 01, 1999

Lights, camera, electrodes!


woman with electrodes on face
James Collins

Subjects in the Media Effects Research Laboratory are tested for their psychological reactions to media stimuli.

Shyam Sundar Sethuraman, director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, uses electrodes to monitor people's reactions to everything from download speed on the Internet to the size of a television screen to how seating affects enjoyment in a movie theater.

"Essentially, what we do is look at people's reactions to various stimuli," Sundar says. These stimuli include television, cable, Internet, laserdisc, and video sources.

The four-room MERL is designed like a behavioral psychology lab. Three doors open off the reception room: The first leads to a wash room; the second hides the observation room; the third gives access to the experimental room, a 10-by-20 space painted a rosy pink. There's a mirror behind the door. Six deluxe theater chairs are arranged in tight rows of three. A table holds the BioPack. Electrodes connected to this device are strapped to a subject's fingers. Clean skin is a must, because the electrodes work by measuring the amount of current that can pass through the salt in sweat. Residual salt can skew the results. More sweat means more salt and greater conductivity. The information is relayed from the BioPack to the monitoring room, where a computer graphs and records the data. Sundar's staff interprets the degree of conductivity as the degree of arousal. Yet perspiration is just one measure of arousal. Positioned differently, the electrodes can measure brainwaves, eye movement, muscle tension, pulse, and respiration.

Behind the rows of the chairs hide four of the eight deceptively small speakers that comprise the surround-sound system. A 10-foot-wide beige curtain covers the opposite wall. A 27-inch television floats atop a 3-foot pedestal in front of the curtain and is ringed by the remaining speakers. Sundar wheels the television to the side and parts the curtains to reveal a 9-foot projection screen with a cable feed. A 4-foot-high MTV couple appears on the screen, gyrating in a jerky, modern courtship ritual. My ears, as wide as my eyes, bear the assault of the thunderous club music like a child standing in the path of a tsunami.

Sundar breaks the trance saying, "We've found that while subjects exhibit greater statistically significant responses to the larger screen, they recall less of the information." He hypothesizes that a subject's senses require too much energy to allow the brain to take notes. It is very similar to a traumatic experience.

Back in the observation room, staff members sit among a tangle of wires. A tower of a/v components and electrode-leads looms to the left. Two computers glare from the right. The room is a techie's dream. Here researchers record mannerisms and posture by watching through the one-way mirror. Sundar does not base most of his research on these less-exact measures, but trends have begun to emerge that suggest that people react in very similar ways. What does this mean for media specialists?

Well, the data suggest that contrary to popular belief, less is sometimes more. Maybe the media needs to spend more time appealing to the proper senses, rather than shocking all of them.

Shyam Sundar Sethuraman, Ph.D., is associate professor of media studies and director of the Media Effects Lab in the College of Communications, 212 Carnegie Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2173; Learn more about the Media Effects Research Laboratory at

Last Updated June 14, 2021