Seeing is Not Believing: How Cognitive Science Can Redeem Popular Film
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Film scholars sometimes consider popular audiences in terms of the lowest common denominator, but we can safely assume that most movie-goers are aware that historical events are necessarily dramatized, condensed, and modified in order to entertain audiences within a limited time frame. Furthermore, popular cinema often gets a bad rap for being less than mentally stimulating. This paper elucidates how, through its remarkable ability to evoke cognitive empathy, to engage viewers’ Theory of Mind, and to impress itself upon the viewers’ memory, popular film has the powerful potential to challenge preconceived notions and to encourage new critical perspectives. Seeing is not always believing when it comes to popular film, but as this paper seeks to illustrate, seeing is thinking.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In her introduction to a special issue on film studies in The German Quarterly, Kata Gellen states, “One reason that such films as Goodbye, Lenin! (2003), Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006), and Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, 2007) have enjoyed such popularity outside of Germany is that they seem to open a window onto an otherwise mysterious and inaccessible world, in particular the closed societies that have existed in Germany’s recent history. All this makes German film popular and accessible, but it also runs the risk, as many have pointed out, of simplifying and caricaturing German history” (ix). I argue that a cognitive approach to popular historically-themed films can shed new light on the well- worn debates about the ethics of popular cinema to which Gellen alludes. For instance, Oliver and Bartsch’s (2009) distinction between the cognitively-oriented result of appreciation and more reflexive complementary gratifications such as fun and suspense allow for a reconciliation of a film’s tendency to entertain with an ability to make its audience think. Further, recent studies on memory and emotion point to the possibility of better retention when viewers are emotionally engaged, even if in a negative way. In the following, I refer to selected examples from my particular research area of German historical cinema, but will seek to draw broader conclusions about popular film across cultures.
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I. The psychology of entertainment: appreciation, enjoyment, empathy
As Mary Beth Oliver and Anne Bartsch point out, systematic studies of entertainment often concentrate on amusement, enjoyment, and pleasure, although such a focus “fails to cover the full spectrum of viewers’ responses to entertainment” (54). These two media scholars set out to measure appreciation as an audience response that may “help account for the domain of more serious, poignant, and pensive media experiences and gratifications” (54). While Oliver and Bartsch realize that defining “appreciation” and delineating it from “enjoyment” is a tricky business, they provide a working definition of appreciation as an audience response that could illuminate scholarship on popular cinema. They define appreciation in this context as “(a)n experiential state that is characterized by the perception of deeper meaning, the feeling of being moved, and the motivation to elaborate on thoughts and feelings inspired by the experience” (76). This concept of appreciation indicates an active rather than passive viewing process, and makes a great deal of sense in relation to the popular historical film genre. It may feel almost irreverent to say that one “enjoys” a film like Sophie Scholl (2005), with its dramatic and heartrending portrayal of the final days of the eponymous young protester’s life at the hands of the Nazis. Yet due to its gripping nature, watching Sophie Scholl could be characterized as a positive viewing experience, despite its grim subject matter. It is enjoyable not only because it is suspenseful (a characteristic that some argue is a result of the filmmakers’ manipulation of the viewers’ emotions), but also because it speaks to the intellect. The film works on multiple levels to engage viewers’ Theory of Mind and to activate cognitive empathy. Sophie Scholl and her interrogator (secret police officer Robert Mohr, played by Alexander Held) employ various psychological tactics against each other in their intense dialogues, and the anticipation and ensuing analysis of their strategies is gratifying as well as cognitively challenging for the viewer. As I demonstrate in more detail in a longer work, through its camera angles, positioning, and acting (specifically via body language), Marc Rothemund’s film works to take viewers out of their comfort zones, encouraging them to take the perspective of both victim and perpetrator. The viewing audience is reminded at various times that Mohr is, for all his serious flaws, only human after all. Rather than a flat caricature of a Nazi state official, Mohr’s character is somewhat fleshed out, and at times we get a glimpse of his vulnerability. For example, Sophie spots Mohr popping pills, presumably for a stress-induced headache or nerves, as she exits the interrogation room to go to the bathroom. At other times, the camera lingers on Mohr as Sophie leaves the room, and we are witness to embodied transparencies physically signaling his nervousness and tension (e.g. around 58 minutes into the film, when Mohr taps his hand repeatedly on his arm). Although his gaze is often fixed in a cold stare, he chain-smokes, paces, and has difficulty sitting still for long periods. Mohr is experiencing the type of job stress to which many people can relate, regardless of ideological convictions. Some user reviews of Sophie Scholl on The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) confirm that the film encourages perspective-taking that is broader than merely identifying with history’s victims. A reviewer with the screen name “Cadmandu” (reportedly from California) writes, “This film also tacitly prompts you to ask yourself, what would you have done if you were living in Nazi Germany? If you realized that it had all gone insane, would you have fought back? Would you have resisted in a situation where resistance was futile?” Further user reviews, as well as comments from my undergraduate research assistants after they watched the film, underscore reactions that are both thoughtfully reflective and quite emotional. Anecdotally at least, the reception of Sophie Scholl lends credence to Oliver and Bartsch’s reasoning that “some forms of entertainment or media depictions arguably evoke complex blends of emotions and cognitive responses that appear to be associated more closely with appreciation than with enjoyment proper” (58). The film is suspenseful at many points, but as Oliver and Bartsch’s studies suggest, suspense is not necessarily a good predictor of enjoyment. A moving and thought-provoking film may also not be “enjoyable” in a conventional sense, but it is more likely to make a lasting impression on viewers.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Oliver and Bartsch conducted three studies by which undergraduate university students rated films they had recently seen (Study 1), or films on prepared lists (Study 2), or films they had seen in a class (Study 3). The researchers found that their rating variable of “moving and thought-provoking experiences” was a significant predictor of movie appreciation. Among the variables fun, suspense, and moving or thought-provoking experiences in movie viewing, the latter was the strongest predictor of the films making a lasting impression on the students. In analyzing the results of their own studies, Oliver and Bartsch speculate that cognitive theories of emotion such as those from Lazarus (1991) and Scherer (2001) might help to explain the “rewarding state of intrinsic motivation” that comes about as a result of emotional involvement. As Oliver and Bartsch summarize, “These theories assume that emotions serve to signal challenges and threats to an individual’s well-being that need to be dealt with by taking action both physically and mentally. To address the cognitive part of the challenge as an emotionally involved observer of media content and to deal with it in meaningful ways may result in a sense of mastery and self-effectiveness that is rewarding for media users” (77). While this explanation of appreciation is speculative for now and needs further study with a broader range of viewers and films, the relationship between enjoyment and cognitive stimulation is one that makes intuitive sense and could help redeem popular film, at least in some of its forms.
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II. Screened history: feeling, remembering, reflecting, learning
Extensive cognitive research is being conducted regarding the impact of emotion on memory. As emotion generally plays a strong role in the viewing of narrative films, studies on film reception that concentrate on post-viewing retention must consider recent developments in this area of cognitive science. Although viewing an event on screen is not equivalent to experiencing it in real life, many of the emotions evoked are similar in both realms. Thus, some of the conclusions drawn from experiments in emotion-and-memory labs are bound to be revealing in terms of popular films’ lasting impressions on viewers. Through behavioral studies, fMRI, and other techniques, neuroscientists such as Elizabeth Phelps are studying the effects of emotion on episodic memory, learning, and perception. Even when they are not considering film-viewing specifically, the results of such studies could – and should – have an enormous influence on film reception studies.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 When a viewer reacts with strong emotions to a movie, is that person more, or less, likely to remember it better and longer than if they had not experienced such an intense emotional response? Studies on emotion and memory are gradually shedding light on possible answers to this complex question. Whether something makes a lasting, accurate impression in one’s memory depends on many variables, including the particular emotions that are evoked and whether it is a negative, positive, or neutral emotional experience for the individual. It is generally accepted in contemporary memory studies that even vivid memories of traumatic or otherwise emotionally-charged events tend to be unreliable in terms of objective accuracy. In their 2005 study about recall of words heard during muted video clips, Anderson and Shimamura found that context memory was enhanced by arousing film clips (car chases or ski jumps), while negatively valenced clips (showing arm amputation and self-mutilation) reduced context memory performance. Positively valenced clips (penguins playing and other animals) had no effect on the word recall in this study. As is the case with flashbulb memories, negative emotions (grief, disgust, etc.) may affect the brain in a way that hinders proper memory retention. Watching muted clips while hearing recorded words is, of course, not even close to a typical movie-viewing experience. Nonetheless, the implications of such a study can illuminate our considerations of popular film and the endurance of its effects. One might assume that a mild form of psychogenic amnesia could be caused by viewing disturbing visual images, i.e. ones that evoke negative emotions, on screen. Viewing something shocking might cause a person to repress it in whole or in part, and in the case of film this occurrence could diminish the lasting impact that is arguably an important feature of historical films in particular. Yet other research points to a completely different phenomenon, such as that outlined in Elizabeth Kensinger’s article with the telling title “Negative Emotion Enhances Memory Accuracy: Behavioral and Neuroimaging Evidence.” While there is not yet a definitive answer to the question of how emotion affects memory in terms of film viewing, studies such as the latter may point to high memory retention of disturbing movie scenes as are typical in many popular film genres. If this is the case, the “blood and gore” scenes of, say, a war movie, function not only as a manipulative shock-and-disgust tactic, but also as consciousness-raising about the real perils of violence, an awareness that will persist long after the viewer has left the movie theater (or turned off the television or computer).
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 A film with a number of emotionally “arousing” scenes, like Uli Edel’s The Baader- Meinhof Complex, a popular cinematic portrayal of West Germany’s domestic terrorists – complete with police chases and shoot-out scenes – may actually provoke the types of emotions that lead to a sharpening of cognitive functioning. While that film has been criticized (to an extent justifiably) for glamorizing history and romanticizing the Red Army Faction terrorist group, it is accessible and engages viewers in a way that keeps their attention focused on the political implications and unanswered questions of this time period. The film also questions traditional “good guy – bad guy” dichotomies and gives viewers pause as they are invited to engage in the cognitive activity of perspective-taking—with the terrorists.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Again I return to the title of my paper: seeing is not always believing. I am confident that the vast majority of viewers of Edel’s film are not fooled into thinking that the depicted events happened exactly like they do in the movie. Edel and his filmmaking team did work exceptionally diligently toward historical accuracy, having based the film largely on Stefan Aust’s renowned 1985 historical account of this time in West German history. Still, the film is described cautiously by one viewer as “a mostly historically-accurate chronicle,” and another states, “this movie is really touching. It is not a documentary. Don’t expect a history lesson. The movie does not explain enough of the backgrounds or provides [sic] a specific message.”
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The problems inherent in claims to “represent” history in any form should not be understated. What Hirst et al. describe as the “Michael Moore effect” highlights the very real ability of film to cement historical events (or at least one version of them) in our memories. As the researchers note, “Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 911 brought dramatic attention to President Bush’s location [at the time of the World Trade Center attacks] by featuring his reading of The Pet Goat in a Florida elementary school” (168). In this study, participants who had seen Moore’s film remembered President Bush’s location on September 11th 2001 more accurately and for longer than those who had not seen the film (and even those who had not seen the film improved in their recollection of this fact over time, probably because of the discussion about Bush’s Pet Goat situation sparked by Moore’s film). Evidence pointing to a phenomenon like the “Michael Moore effect” puts the onus on filmmakers (of fictionalized historical dramas, or documentaries or films that lie somewhere in between) to get the historical facts straight, even while leaving room for multiple interpretations and ways of understanding those facts. At the same time, the aforementioned studies on memory and those in the first section of this paper on appreciation imply that a film can be exciting, emotionally evocative, and entertaining while still prompting viewers to critically think and learn about the material they are watching.
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III. Conclusion: let’s not be so quick to judge…
So if seeing is not always believing, then what is it? When it comes to a well-made film—even if not 100% historically precise, and even if produced in the typical Hollywood style that is often belittled by critics—seeing can mean feeling, reflecting, learning, and accurately remembering enough important details to relate meaningfully and critically to later experiences and new knowledge. A cognitive approach to film reception reveals some positive pedagogical implications for popular historical dramas (at least those that do not egregiously deviate from or distort historical fact), reinforcing that entertainment and education are not mutually exclusive when it comes to these films. Emotional appeal and melodrama leading to character identification should not be summarily dismissed as “manipulation” of an imagined naïve viewership; instead, these characteristics should be acknowledged for their capacity to stimulate viewers to think. Finally, we should remain open to the educational possibilities of popular film, especially as we learn more about the psychological workings behind the viewing process through developments in the relatively new field of “neurocinematics.”
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. Princeton neuroscientist and psychologist Uri Hasson, who has endeavored to confirm film’s manipulative powers with experimental evidence, tells us, “Think about movies as highly controlled experiments in which filmmakers control what you see, hear, expect, feel, predict and so forth” [http://www.thecredits.org/2013/01/this-is-your- brain-on-movies-neuroscientists-weigh-in-on-the-brain-science-of-cinema/]. Kozloff gives credit to the viewer, who does not always fall for it: “Movies that are too obviously manipulative, or that do not carefully earn the audience’s respect for their characters’ development, make spectators question the filmmakers’ sincerity” (24). Manipulation is also a common discussion topic in regard to written narratives; see for example Levine, who states that “plotted narrative is intrinsically a prescient form, told from the perspective of the end. It is for this reason that suspense has typically been seen as manipulative and controlling, setting up the reader for prearranged conclusions” (133).
. Cognitive empathy is often used more or less synonymously with Theory of Mind, as the ability of perspective-taking, while the complementary term affective empathy describes an emotional response based on the expressed feelings or thought processes of another. Some scientists have also broken Theory of Mind down into the categories of cognitive ToM and affective ToM (see for example Sebastian et al., 2012). Empathy studies at this point in time would be served well by more consistency in its terminology.
. Monograph in progress
. Embodied transparencies are those moments when a character’s emotions are telegraphed on their bodies, often against the character’s will. See Zunshine’s “Theory of Mind and Fictions of Embodied Transparency,” and Getting Inside Your Head.
. From www.imdb.com, posted 13 January 2006, accessed 7 November 2013.
. For example the review of “Tasha-Yar” reportedly from Germany: “You feel with Sophie Scholl, you think about what you would have done in her place: ‘Would I be so strong like Sophie? Could I fight with my life for my ideals? Would I have the courage like this young woman?’ These are important questions, not only for us Germans, but for everyone! Would we stand up and say ‘This is wrong!’, even when our life is at stake? It’s difficult to find the right words, but this film deeply touched me and made me thinking [sic] about myself. And this fact alone is truly remarkable. Watch this film!” (www.imdb.com, posted 2 April 2005, accessed 7 November 2013).
. As Keith Oatley notes, “Although the emotions of fiction seem to happen to characters in a story, really, all the important emotions happen to us as we read or watch” (15-16).
. See the studies surrounding so-called “flashbulb memories” of public tragic events: Brown and Kulik (1977), who coined the term, considered these memories as highly accurate when recalled after even a lengthy passage of time, but later researchers have found the opposite to be the case. Talarico and Rubin (2009) conclude that “(e)motional intensity is an unreliable predictor” of flashbulb memory (92). Rimmele et al. (2011) find that “emotion specifically enhances the subjective recollective experience for scenes, but this increased subjective recollective experience is not associated with accurate memory of the same scene details for negative scenes as much as it is for neutral scenes”(561).
. Context memory “refers to improved recall of specific episodes or information when the context present at encoding and retrieval are similar.” http://www.cognitiveatlas.org/term/context_memory
. Comments like the following are prevalent in the user reviews for this film: “Interestingly, the movie does not judge. You see the position of the group, and of the authorities that battled them, equally. The quality of the movie and of the performances is such that that you do feel a degree of sympathy for the ‘terrorists’ as their plans fail, their members are picked off one by one and their mental state starts to unravel. You feel sympathy, despite the fact that they were bombers, kidnappers and murderers” (from the user “seawalker” reportedly of Birmingham, England; www.imdb.com; posted 16 November 2008, accessed 27 November 2013).
. User “MrWhiplash” reportedly from the United States; www.imdb.com, posted 12 September 2009, accessed 27 November 2013.
. User “DaRZA” reportedly from Germany; www.imdb.com, posted 11 Oct 2008, accessed 27 November 2013.
. A user review like one on www.imdb.com for the Baader-Meinhof movie reinforces the filmmaker’s responsibility in this respect: “Although being somewhat more than moderately interested in politics, I knew very little about the original activities on which this film is based. Having seen the film, I now feel vastly more knowledgeable on how world events in the late sixties and early seventies led from the emergence to the demise of this particular left wing faction” (from the user “geoffgee” reportedly of Sheffield, England; www.imdb.com, posted 20 November 2008, accessed 27 November 2013).
. For an intriguing and thoughtful discussion on this topic, see Kozloff’s very recent article on the “cinema of engagement” as a classification of films that—despite, and indeed because of, their emotional appeal—have the effect of motivating, encouraging empathy and perspective-taking, and even inspiring political action.
. See for example Hasson et al. (2008).
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Anderson, Lisa and Arthur P. Shimamura. “Influences of emotion on context memory while viewing film clips.” American Journal of Psychology 118.3 (Fall 2005): 323-37.
Brown, Roger and James Kulik. “Flashbulb memories.” Cognition 5.1 (1977): 73-99.
Gellen, Kata. “Special Issue on German Film Studies: Introduction.” The German Quarterly 85.1 (Winter 2012): vii-xii.
Hasson, Uri, et al. “Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 2.1 (Summer 2008): 1-26.
Hirst, William, et al. “Long-Term Memory for the Terrorist Attack of September 11: Flashbulb Memories, Event Memories, and the Factors That Influence Their Retention.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 138.2 (2009): 161-76.
Kensinger, Elizabeth A. “Negative Emotion Enhances Memory Accuracy: Behavioral and Neuroimaging Evidence.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 16.4 (2007): 213-18.
Kozloff, Sarah. “Empathy and the Cinema of Engagement: Reevaluating the Politics of Film.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 7.2 (Winter 2013): 1-40.
Levine, Caroline. The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt. Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia P, 2003.
Oatley, Keith. The Passionate Muse. Exploring Emotion in Stories. New York: Oxford UP, 2012.
Oliver, Mary Beth, and Anne Bartsch. “Appreciation as audience response: exploring entertainment gratifications beyond hedonism.” Human Communication Research 36.1 (2009): 53-81.
Rimmele, Ulrike, et al. “Emotion enhances the subjective feeling of remembering, despite lower accuracy for contextual details.” Emotion 11 (2011): 553-62.
Sebastian, Catherine L., et al. “Neural processing associated with cognitive and affective Theory of Mind in adolescents and adults.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 7.1 (2012): 53-63.
Talarico, Jennifer M. and David C. Rubin. “Flashbulb memories result from ordinary memory processes and extraordinary event characteristics.” Flashbulb Memories: New Issues and New Perspectives. Ed. Olivier Luminet and Antonietta Curci: New York: Psychology Press, 2009. 79-97.
Zunshine, Lisa. Getting Inside Your Head: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Popular Culture. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.
—. “Theory of Mind and Fictions of Embodied Transparency.” Narrative 16.1 (2008): 65-92.