From Rambo to Rushdie via Linklater and Lavant: Our Peanut Butter Cup Runneth Over

Friday, October 17, 2014

Marshall Duke and Daniel Reynolds


In the first CMBC lunch talk of the 2014 academic school year, Dr. Marshall Duke (Psychology, Emory University) and Dr. Daniel Reynolds (Film and Media Studies, Emory University) discussed their recent collaboration, the joint teaching of last spring’s interdisciplinary class, “Film and the Mind.”

Bringing together psychology and film studies in an interdisciplinary approach can lead us to a richer understanding of what films—and our responses to them—disclose about the human mind. Dr. Duke began the discussion with an impassioned endorsement of consilience—a term popularized by E.O. Wilson’s 1998 book of the same name. Consilience refers to “a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation” (Wilson, p. 7). For example, researchers from a range of scientific disciplines—genetics, paleontology, biology—have arrived at similar conclusions about evolution using independent lines of research, providing converging support for evolutionary theory.

Drs. Duke and Reynolds created the interdisciplinary course, “Film and the Mind,” in the tradition of consilience, creating a space for inquiry at the nexus of film studies and psychology. As a metaphor for the goal of consilience, the two professors brought in a jar of peanut butter, chocolate bars, and Reese’s p-b cups, encouraging the students to begin thinking from a “Reese’s p-b cup place”—in other words, from the juncture where these two disciplines overlap. There is a historical precedent for this: two early prominent film theorists—Hugo Munsterberg and Rudolf Arnheim—studied human behavior from an interdisciplinary perspective by drawing from both psychology and film studies. Both Munsterberg and Arnheim were psychologists by trade who became interested in the novel ways film contributes to the study of human behavior. As Dr. Duke explained, Munsterberg is a well-known figure in the film studies discipline, but has been all but forgotten within the field of psychology. This underscores how far apart these two disciplines have drifted—and Drs. Duke and Reynolds believe that it is time to bring them back together.

An interdisciplinary approach that draws from psychology and films studies can be used in the viewing and analysis of films to reach a deeper understanding of strengths and weaknesses in psychological theories and concepts. For example, psychoanalysis plays a large role in the narrative of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and analyzing the film enables a greater understanding of the ways psychoanalysis has proven itself simultaneously to be both useful and limited in comprehending the inner workings of the human mind.  The protagonist of “Vertigo” is crippled by a fear of heights and attempts to overcome this fear in order to save a woman from the top of a tower. He misinterprets the actions and events around him and is unable to understand whom the woman in the tower really is, mirroring the types of misinterpretation and identity confusion that frequently arise in psychoanalysis. With this film, Hitchcock succeeds in making these core psychoanalytic constructs accessible to the viewer and illustrating their utility for understanding how the human mind works. “Vertigo” has a very tight narrative with the characters’ behavior all neatly accounted for by conscious or unconscious intentions, reflecting the psychoanalytic position that all behavior has an identifiable cause. It is Dr. Duke’s belief that this constitutes a simplistic account of human behavior.

In contrast to “Vertigo,” in which psychoanalytic theory was used to directly construct the film’s narrative, other films loosely embody speculations about psychological processes and may allow greater traction on questions about the human mind by virtue of being less rigidly constructed. “The Tree of Life” exemplifies this type of film and was viewed in the class because of its portrayal of features of human consciousness. The film follows the story of a family living in Texas in the 1950s and is framed by meditations on the experience of being alive, family relationships, and humanity’s place in space and time within the expansiveness of our cosmos. The film has a daring style, performing experiments in perception and incorporating stylistic elements that are novel and unique. For example, the film features an unexpected interlude chronicling the creation of the universe and development of biological life. Films like “The Tree of Life” make it clear that we are not simply learning about the mind by passively digesting the view of human experience that the film projects. Rather, the viewer has a range of reactions to a film, and it is in the interplay between what a film is communicating and how the viewer responds to a film where we gain insights about our own mind and the minds of others.

Because of the complexity associated with unraveling these interactions, studying film and the mind from an interdisciplinary perspective is a particularly useful approach to thinking about such topics as how absorbing watching films is. When the lights are dimmed and a film is projected on a large screen, most viewers have the experience of becoming absorbed in the film to the point that they forget there are other people around them. The literary critic Zunshine argues that in this state we allow ourselves to fully experience the moment because we are minimally self-conscious and maximally absorbed in the film. This quality allows us to strongly empathize with a film’s characters, crying when they are in despair and applauding when they are joyous or victorious. There are factors about the film-watching experience and the film itself that can modulate the degree to which we become absorbed in a film, or empathize with its characters. For example, if the lights aren’t dimmed or the film is being viewed on a small portable device, the degree to which the viewer becomes absorbed is likely diminished. Furthermore, factors like the tone of the film or how sympathetic the characters are can enhance or reduce the degree to which the viewer empathizes with the films’ characters.

Although we are capable of deeply empathizing with others, we are also embodied physical beings and retain some level of distance from others, enabling us to judge them. Dr. Reynolds contends that we likely exist at the confluence of these two states, shifting dynamically between them as circumstances change. “The Act of Killing”—another film viewed in Drs. Reynolds’ and Duke’s class—reveals the dynamic shift between states of greater and lesser empathy and judgment as we relate to the characters on screen. “The Act of Killing” is a documentary that portrays re-enactments of genocide and includes one particularly profound moment in which one of the perpetrators of the genocide realizes the horror of his acts and begins crying. The perpetrator is a very unsympathetic character that most viewers would judge as a monster, but in this singular moment of the film, the viewer is forced to reconcile this judgment with a feeling of sudden empathy for the man. By provoking this pronounced shift from a judging stance to one of empathy, the film compels the viewer to experience a moment of intense self-awareness of the dynamic nature in which we relate to others.

Cognitive psychology and neuroscience research provides insight into how the experience of empathy and judgment may be instantiated at a neural level. Mirror neurons are so-named because they fire both when an individual initiates an action and when an individual observes another initiating the same action. In effect, activity in mirror neurons does not meaningfully discriminate between the action of self and the action of others, leading researchers to hypothesize that these neurons play a role in empathy. The mirror neuron system may function in parallel with neural systems that support our sense of self. For example, research suggests that the medial prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, and temporoparietal junction may promote self-reflection and a sense of physical embodiment. The brain may be capable of toggling between these neural systems, allowing fluid transitions between judgmental and empathetic states.

An interdisciplinary approach is, however, not without its challenges. At the culmination of the talk, Dr. Reynolds discussed one of the challenges of attempting an interdisciplinary inquiry—namely, the differences in what defines ‘rigor’ between different disciplines. Different disciplines have different standards and interdisciplinary inquiries inevitably require the examination of those differences. But Dr. Reynolds maintains that as you start thinking from a place of consilience between disciplines, you can converge on a ‘hybrid rigor’ by bringing rigor from both disciplines to bear on new inquiries. He champions a consilience approach because it can be a transformative experience. Drs. Duke and Reynolds ultimately felt the “Film and the Mind” class was a success and the students were able to transcend their traditional disciplinary boundaries, developing a more informed and broader perspective in the process. Dr. Duke’s concluding thoughts returned to E.O. Wilson’s book on consilience, arguing Wilson’s point that as we continue to explore interdisciplinary approaches, we will ultimately find that there is a unified body of knowledge in the world.

— Melanie Pincus


Wilson, E. O. (1999). Consilience: The unity of knowledge (Vol. 31). Random House LLC.

About Melanie Pincus

Melanie is a PhD student in the Neuroscience program at Emory. She is studying how chronic stress in female macaques interacts with experiential factors, including pubertal timing and diet, to alter the development of corticolimbic circuitry important for emotion regulation. She enjoys pursuing inter-disciplinary questions to better understand complex relationships between the developing brain, neuroendocrine system, gut microbiome, and behavior. She is a CMBC affiliate and contributed blog posts for the CMBC Lunch series from 2014-2015.
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