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Teaching Cognitive Science and the Arts II
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Cynthia Freeland

Cognitive science is developing new approaches to the empirical study of the mind, exploring brain mechanisms, emotions, artificial intelligence, imagination, perception, and the acquisition of specialized knowledge and abilities like language. Increasingly, scholars in aesthetics accept that research in cognitive science should affect our approach to our own discipline. In this article I suggest some strategies for teaching about cognitive science in relation to film theory.

Especially crucial in planning this sort of course will be the students’ background knowledge and the course level. The course would best be taught at an advanced, not introductory, level. Graduate philosophy students might enjoy probing the connections between the aesthetics of film and philosophy of mind. In a graduate seminar I might begin with some basic problems in cognitive science and then seek insights from readings in recent aesthetics. The focus might be on modularity of mind, qualia, the analysis of emotions, representation and images, empathy and imagination, or the role of evolutionary explanations. Key readings to start with might come from Jerry Fodor, Stephen Pinker, Paul Griffiths, Paul Churchland, Ruth Millikan, etc., and move on into (fairly difficult) books by Gregory Currie or Ed S. Tan. Currie’s article “Aesthetics and Cognitive Science” offers a useful overview that could help one design such a course.

An undergraduate aesthetics course presents distinct challenges: students from film studies are likely to enter with preconceptions from psychoanalysis and cultural studies. Even philosophy majors may need overviews of topics in cognitive science. And it is sometimes difficult to relate the fairly abstract discussions in philosophical articles to actual films students know and love. Below, I focus on ideas for an undergraduate aesthetics course that would explore some topics in aesthetics of film in relation to cognitive science.

Illusions and Perception

“Cognitivism” in film theory loosely describes an approach developed in the mid-1980s by, especially, David Bordwell and Noël Carroll. These theorists attacked dominant trends in film studies (semiotics, Marxism, psychoanalysis) and instead employed methods of cognitive psychology and analytic philosophy. Cognitivists allude to universal psychological structures that have evolved in humans as relevant to viewing films. Some of these abilities concern visual information processing; others, more complex kinds of interpretative and emotional response. It is important to realize that film cognitivists are not necessarily committed to cognitive science per se. Some, like Richard Allen, are Wittgensteinians who do not much rely upon it (or who are even outright hostile to it) – they do not cite neuroscientific studies of emotions, evolutionary psychology, or empirical studies of sensory perception. To investigate the juncture of film theory with cognitive science, I would suggest focusing on the more empirical approaches.

Cognitivists studying film perception ask, for example, whether processes of viewing films involve certain illusions, and whether illusion-based accounts can explain our emotional and imaginative engagement with films. In such a course, students could examine approaches to film studies from the disciplines of psychology and philosophy. In broad terms, psychologists who have written on film are pro-illusion, while philosophers are contra. Carroll in The Philosophy of Horror distinguishes three views: illusion theory, pretend theory, and thought theory; he endorses thought theory. Currie defends a simulation theory that is like what Carroll calls pretend theory. The psychologist Joseph Anderson, on the other hand, writing from an evolutionary perspective, endorses a strong version of illusion theory; Ed S. Tan also defends illusionism. Students could work to pin down what is at issue in this debate.

Anderson emphasizes certain universals involved in viewing films. Through trial and error, filmmakers have developed conventions that are realistic and “potentially acceptable to every human being on earth” (11-12). His explanation is modeled on perceptual psychologist J.J. Gibson’s “ecological” approach to visual perception, also referencing David Marr’s work on vision. Anderson discusses phenomena like motion perception, brightness, depth, perspective, texture gradients, and color. He analyzes continuity in Hollywood films in relation to standard rules for visual perception, discussing devices like match-action cuts, jump cuts, invisible cuts, and the depiction of settings in three-dimensional space. Filmmakers activate our perceptual “hardware,” i.e. the brain, neurons, and neural system generally.

Anderson’s approach resonates with some selections in Bordwell and Carroll’s anthology Post-Theory. Hochberg and Brooks explain how filmmaker Chris Marker deliberately violated standard conventions of motion depiction in La Jetée (1964) to disrupt our expectations and habits of seeing. James Peterson develops an inferential (as opposed to semiotic) account of the cognitive procedures a viewer employs to understand abstract, seemingly irrational films like Un Chien Andalou, citing parallel work by Jackendoff and Gombrich on cognitive processing of music and decorative visual art.

Currie rejects illusionism in his Chapter 1, “The myth of illusion”. He distinguishes cognitive from perceptual illusions and rejects both as doctrine about films. It would be interesting to explore how he disagrees with Anderson on the topic of the movement illusion. Currie’s account is more philosophically sophisticated; he refers to recent discussions of colors as “apparent properties” which are “response-dependent” and so not actual illusions. But Currie’s discussion seems less informed by empirical research about the specific cinematic phenomena that Anderson covers.

Emotions and Empathy

A second broad topic that arises in relation to debates about film as illusion concerns emotional and imaginative responses to film fictions. Currie offers “a naturalistic, biological explanation of imagination” (142). He cites experiments concerning autistic children, whose imaginative abilities are minimal or absent. Currie defends a simulationist account of imagination: in appreciating fictions we simulate beliefs and desires of represented individuals.

Tan shifts the emphasis from viewers to filmmakers who generate and manipulate emotional responses through narrative and other film mechanisms. Tan favors thought theory as fitting better with the functional standpoint on emotions borrowed from his psychologist colleague N.H. Fridja. Tan identifies various film illusions, citing recent studies on the perspective illusion and on movement perception. (There are, for example, major effects of camera motion on an observer’s perceived self-motion.) Tan uses his account of these various illusions to argue that either empathetic or malevolent attitudes can be imposed by a film.

The study of emotion in film can easily be linked to a discussion of genre, an accessible and interesting topic for students. Carroll’s useful article, “Film, Emotion, and Genre” in Passionate Views could pave the way for further discussions of melodrama, horror, comedy, etc. Also relevant is Torben Grodal’s Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition. I would not recommend asking students to purchase this book (at $75!), but might include some chapters in a course-pack. Chapter 10 on crime and horror fiction is relatively digestible and would allow for good comparisons to Carroll’s work. Grodal’s discussion of Vertigo in Chapter 11 on melodrama could be interestingly contrasted to standard psychoanalytic approaches (like Laura Mulvey’s) which emphasize Freudian or Lacanian doctrines about voyeurism, fetishism, the “phallic gaze” of the camera, etc.

The topic of emotions would also afford the opportunity discuss film music from cognitive standpoints. There are excellent articles on film music in both Post-Theory and Film Theory and Philosophy (by Peter Kivy, Jeff Smith, and Jerrold Levinson). If I were structuring a course around the topic of film and emotions, I would probably order Passionate Views. The introduction provides a useful orientation to film cognitivism. Dirk Eitzen’s essay “The Emotional Basis of Film Comedy” cites evolutionary accounts of humor in humans (albeit in a sketchy way). Jeff Smith’s article “Movie Music as Moving Music: Emotion, Cognition, and the Film Score” is unusually helpful, using many examples from familiar movies like The Elephant Man, Psycho, and Alien.

In a graduate seminar, some selected topics on emotions in film could be integrated with readings from recent cognitive science on the emotions. In addition to the issues about empathy and imagination discussed by Currie, Carroll, and others, this course could include some readings from cognitive neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio (see my “The Sublime in Cinema” in Passionate Views) or Griffiths’ psycho-evolutionary account (see Bibliography).

Language, Meaning and Interpretation

Other topics to explore in a course include film language, meaning, and interpretation. Numerous scholars in film studies have adopted the view that film either has or is a language, but the relevant conception of language is fuzzy at best; Saussure’s account of linguistics has been extremely influential, and students might benefit from exploring implications of replacing his theory with, say, Chomsky’s. (Readings from Pinker would also be relevant.) From the standpoint of cognitive science, there are complex issues at stake: Is all thought inherently linguistic or propositional in nature? If film or another artistic medium like music is treated as having a language of its own, how would such languages differ from ordinary languages? Currie’s book offers a good entry point into this topic, with a strong anti-film-as-language stance.

Related to the film and language issue are broad questions about how viewers construe the meaning of films. Cognitivists like Bordwell have offered detailed accounts of viewers’ active processes of interpreting (“constructing”) film narratives. Some writers working at the intersections of cognitive science and literature (like Mark Johnson and Mark Turner) have argued that narratives are a part of human conscious experience generally, and that certain pathological states can be understood as disrupted or abnormal narratives. Currie, in discussing interpretation, asks how we get from a given stimulus – whether words and sentences or cinematic images and sounds – to a story told by these words and images (p. 251ff). Here again he employs his account of simulation. He also cites work by “psychologist of narrative” J.J. Mandler, who has argued for the role of various schemata in narrative interpretation. Anderson’s account of interpretation similarly invokes a notion of “schemata”, borrowed from Gombrich and modified by ideas of Gibson and Neisser. These discussions of schemata might be compared with recent philosophical accounts of complex learning, whether about games and sports, or morality and the social world. Here one could use Paul Churchland’s article “The Neural Representation of the Social World” or some of Hubert Dreyfus’s recent work (see Bibliography).

Conclusion: Problems and Challenges

Students should aim to assess the current state of cognitive science-based theorizing about film. Dialogue across disciplines like psychology and philosophy is still needed. It is also not evident that competing explanations from neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and artificial intelligence will lead us in the same directions. The empirical scientific knowledge employed thus far in film studies can be limited: Anderson’s 1996 book relies heavily on Marr’s theory of vision, which has been seriously challenged. Disputes about realism vs. illusionism in film may be outmoded by newer “hybridized” accounts of visual perception. Similarly, studies of the emotions from the perspective of cognitive psychology might need revision in the light of the latest work by neuroscientists studying emotions.

Aesthetics scholars might well worry about some aspects of the cognitivist accounts. Some think that any universality in responses to film, for example, is better accounted for on a more Marxian approach as a product of mass marketing by Hollywood. Also, brain-based theories do not readily fit with recent emphases in film theory on gender, class, and race as factors in aesthetic experience (see Plantinga). Another worry concerns aesthetic reductivism. It is unclear what cognitive science can contribute to problems of aesthetic assessment or judgments about values. There has been interesting work in cognitive science and ethics (see Mind and Morals in the Bibliography), and connections to another field of normative discourse would be well worth exploring in a course.


Film Theory

Allen, Richard and Murray Smith, eds. Film Theory and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Anderson, Joseph D. The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Bordwell, David and Noel Carroll, eds. Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Currie, Gregory. “Aesthetics and Cognitive Science.” Forthcoming.

Currie, Gregory. Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Grodal, Torben. Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Plantinga, Carl. “Cognitive Film Theory: An Insider’s Appraisal.” Cinemas. Forthcoming.

Plantinga, Carl and Gregory Smith, eds. Passionate Views. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Tan, Ed S. Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Tr. by Barbara Fasting. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996.


Churchland, Paul. “The Neural Representation of the Social World.” Mind and Morals: Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science. Larry May, Marilyn Friedman, and Andy Clark, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996, pp. 91-108.

Hubert L. Dreyfus. “Intelligence Without Representation.” On-line at <>.

Gibson, J.J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Griffiths, Paul. What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories.

2001 © Cynthia Freeland

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