Torben Grodal


On his book Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotions, Culture, and Film

Cover Interview of August 20, 2009

In a nutshell

Embodied Visions is a pathbreaking explanation of how films are crafted to activate innate features of our brains and bodies.  The book is based on cutting edge neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology.

In the first part of Embodied Visions I show how the evolutionary history of humans and their mammal ancestors influences our preferences for certain types of narratives and themes, and how filmmakers create fascinating stories by appealing to these innate dispositions.  I show how, for survival reasons, films for children focus on attachment to parents and on honing awareness of dangers.  I also describe the evolutionary reasons for the preference for love stories, and explain why men are more interested in pornography than women.

Embodied Visions further describes how preferences for violence and hide-and-seek themes reflect our prehistoric survival needs.  It is brain mechanisms that make supernatural stories like fairy tales and horror stories highly interesting; I describe these in the book, and also discuss why we are even interested in sad films.  Sad films provide vital information of hazards and they also help create strong social bonds, for instance related to male bonding in war films.

The second part Embodied Visions is about how the architecture of the human brain explains central aesthetic features of films.  The point of departure is to describe how we process films by means of what I have called the PECMA flow—short for “Perception, Emotion, Cognition and Motor Action.”  I also discuss the brain mechanisms by which we simulate characters, for instance by means of so-called mirror neurons, that induce us to simulate emotions and actions of other people.

The flow model explains how sight and sound, say the sight of a wolf approaching a character, trigger emotions, which in turn trigger cognitions about what to do, which are then implemented in actions—running, hiding or fighting.  Viewers continuously simulate the flow in empathy with characters.  The book shows how stories are crafted to provide fascinating PECMA flows, as well as how art films violate the flow processes to create sophisticated aesthetic effects.  Finally I describe the mechanisms that provide viewers with a sense of realism, as well as the ones filmmakers use to create the opposite effect—not of realistic worlds, but of subjective experiences of inner life.

The book also discusses the role of culture.  Our brains have a flexibility that allows for cultural variation, and cultural development enhances the means to activate our innate dispositions.