Film studies and the challenge of neuroscience

Cinéma&Cie. International Film Studies Journal
Special Issue no. 22/23
Edited by Adriano D’Aloia and Ruggero Eugeni

Call for Essays [pdf]

Over the last two decades, discoveries made in the field of cognitive neuroscience have begun to permeate the humanities and social sciences. In particular, the philosophical and psychological implications of the function of so-called ‘visuomotor neurons’ have caused a breakthrough in the understanding of the mind-body relation and of phenomena such as human consciousness, empathy, intersubjectivity, affect, and aesthetic response to works of art. This special issue of Cinéma&Cie aims to evaluate, from a multidisciplinary and critical perspective, both the relevance of the neurological approach for the psychology and the aesthetics of the film experience and, more generally, the epistemological consequences of this approach in the humanities.

The fundamental (and controversial) insight behind neuroscientific findings is that the complex processes of the human mind find in the brain’s architecture and functioning their neural correlates. This correlation is based on a functional link between observation of goal-directed actions or emotions and sensorimotor activation of the observer (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia, Iacoboni). Unity of action and perception is allowed by an embodied simulation, a basic functional mechanism by means of which our brain-body system models its interactions with the world (Gallese). This proposal falls fully within the paradigm of embodied cognition, according to which cognition depends upon those experiences that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities that are embedded in a biological, psychological and cultural context (Varela, Thompson and Rosch). In turn, this paradigm is based on both a phenomenological account of the body and human experience (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty) and on the ecological approach to visual perception (Gibson).

Although at an intuitive level the activity of visuomotor neurons and the mirroring mechanism appear to constitute the ground for a new and empirically-based study of film participation, to date a few steps have already been taken in the direction of a neuroembodied theory of the film experience. Indeed, some neuroscientists not only consider cinema as a metaphor for the human mind (Damasio), but also carry out neuroimaging tests on audiences, aiming to outline a ‘neurocinematics’ (Hasson et al.). Since neuroscientific methods and procedures seem not suited to point out aesthetic, cultural or ethical implications, this proposal has been received with scepticism, as problematic and potentially subject to reductionism. Yet philosophical reflections drawn on neuroimaging experiments provide new tools of analysis and interpretation for film theory. For example, tests showing that human beings learn and relate with each other (and with fictional worlds) on the basis of an immediate pre-reflexive and empathetic kind of comprehension would give empirical consistency to the intuitions of the first aesthetic film theories (Epstein, Balázs, Eisenstein) and would revitalised classical filmology (Cohen-Séat, Souriau, Michotte).

In fact, the project of a new multidisciplinary approach to the film experience – Neurofilmology – would remain unproductive if not concretely applied to film aesthetics and viewer participation. More than metaphorically conceivable as an experimental laboratory setting, the film experience offers a space for testing formal solutions (in terms of point-of-view, editing, camera angles, camera movements, colour, lightning, etc.) that provide, control and regulate sensorimotor activation and emotional involvement. While neuroimaging methods cannot provide an aesthetic judgment on the cinematic style, they may serve as ‘an objective scientific measurement for assessing the effect of distinctive styles of filmmaking upon the brain, and therefore substantiate theoretical claims made in relation to them’ (Hasson et al.).

In contemporary film theory, the development of neuroscientific-based models for the study of spectatorship is part of the project of ‘psychocinematics’ (Shimamura) as a natural evolution of the centrality attributed to emotions by cognitivist film scholars (Grodal). Conversely, phenomenological film theory (Casebier, Shaviro, Sobchack) still seems to harbour some resistance to neurophenomenology (Varela), although the search for a post-dualistic neurological foundation of the film experience could allow it to overcome continental philosophy’s rejection of natural science. The study of the neural substratum of the film experience arises as a terrain of encounter and dialogue between cognitive and phenomenological film studies.

This special issue of Cinéma&Cie aims to investigate the possible (or impossible) relationship between cognitive neuroscience and film theories with particular reference to film spectatorship. Possible topics include (but are not limited to):

— Neurophilia/neuromania: critical approaches to the neurological account of the film experience
— Beyond the mirror: toward a phenomenological neuroscience in humanities
— Embodied mind/’Emminded’ body: possible convergence of phenomenological and cognitive film studies
— Enactivism vs. interactivism: simulation, narration, virtual reality and the convergence of the real and the fictional
— History of ‘Neurofilmology’: the mind/brain problem in the history of film theories
— Psychocinematics and Neurocinematics: experiments on the spectator between cognitive psychology and neurocognitive science
— Neurophenomenology of the film experience: the film-body revisited
— Film neuroaesthetics: neural substrates of film style
— Camera movements and sensorimotor simulation
— Cinematic empathy: the role of visuomotor neurons in the spectator’s emotional involvement and ethical implications
— Audiomotor neurons: the role of sound in embodied simulation 

Submission details

Please send your abstract (300-500 words in English + bibliographical references) and a short biographical note to both and by September 15, 2013. All notifications of acceptance will be emailed no later than September 30, 2013. If accepted, 4,000-word essays will then be required for peer review by January 31, 2014.


One Reply to “Neurofilmology”

  1. I have been reading your work and find it immensely interesting and provocative. The way you treat the specific cinematic poetics of immersive experiences (space walks, water, etc) is utterly fascinating, especially to someone researching the history of space films. I have a question, however, about the usefulness of the concept of “embodied simulation”, in general and for film theory in particular. My understanding is that, following Gallese, you view this model of the way in which so-called “mirror neurons” enable empathy as “enactive”. However, this begs the same kind of question, it seems to me, that enactivists have asked of the representational/computational paradigm more generally: just as the world functions as its own model for an externalist/enactivist, bypassing the need for internal representation, why shouldn’t films be viewed as themselves providing sufficent ‘simulations’ that neural resoance systems are able to directly perceive? What does the added hypothesis of embodied simulation add to our understanding of cinema, if we simply adopt an enactive or sensory-motor account of perception as intrinsically linked to possibilities of action or affordances? Following Gallagher’s critque of embodied simulation, can’t we say that a film is already a simulation structured to elicit the perception of affordances available to characters? Why is there any need for internal simulation, whether cognitive or precogmitve, if the film itself is already the simulation of a world as an “optic array”? (I would further argue that the specifcity of cinema, then, would lie in the way that it elicits the perception of affordances cut off from any possible action. This experience is exactly that of the ‘ordinary man of cinema’ evoked by Schefer and repeatedly endorsed by Deleuze in his books on cinema). In any case, thank you for producing such fascinating work on the nature of cinema. Also, you may recall that I unsuccessfully submitted for your book on neurocinema. However, I discovered your work on space and water (which I find wonderful) quite by accident while googling ‘astronaut’ and ‘affordance’. It is a small world … as space movies remind us!

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