Movies stimulate our brains and bodies. They absorb us in stories, arouse our emotions, and evoke an array sensory pleasures and responses. This seminar investigates the cognitive, perceptual, and neurological processes that underlie such aesthetic effects. The goal is
to assess current theories and debates in cognitive science, neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, analytic philosophy, film studies, Darwinian literary theory, and art history as they inform fundamental questions concerning the spectatorial experience of film and related
narrative and pictorial arts.
The seminar examines questions such as the following:
What perceptual and cognitive activities unfold during the perception and comprehension of visual images and narratives?
What responses in the spectator’s brain and body can be revealed using fMRI scans and measurements of hormonal and physiological change? How intersubjective are such phenomena?
What are emotions, how do they operate, and what are they for? What should a typology of affective states look like?
How and why do spectators become emotionally involved with stories (through empathy, sympathy, identification, etc.), even when they know the characters and events are fictitious (aka “the paradox of fiction”)? How might recent findings in neuroscience illuminate the problem?
What are the mechanics of particular responses, such as pathos and suspense?
How does moral appraisal trigger bodily states, and how do emotion-based evolutionary theories of morality enhance our understanding of moral judgments in film and literature?
Why do people subject themselves to ostensibly painful art (aka. the “paradox of tragedy”)?
Why is storytelling a human universal? Are there universals in themes and genres?
Why is pictorial and decorative art a human universal? Are there aesthetic universals in qualitative features and compositional “rules” of visual art?
Are Culturalist and Universalist approaches invariably at odds? Is a nonobjectionable
conception of “human nature” viable?
Students will deliver presentations on research topics of their choice, exploring recent arguments in neuroscience and philosophy concerning affective phenomena such as humor, desire, anxiety, disgust, boredom, crying, sentimentality, music, kinaesthesia, specific stylistic devices, factors in aesthetic pleasure, etc…