Torben Grodal


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

Cover Interview of August 20, 2009

The wide angle

For decades the dominant theoretical framework for film studies (and for the humanities in general) has been a strong version of what is called “social constructionism.”  The basic idea here is that whereas animals are molded by their biological nature, humans are socially constructed by culture—by “nurture.”  According to this view, from emotions such as romantic love to the way stories are told, everything is a product of cultural traditions—no human nature, therefore, and no human universals.

In contrast, modern psychology and neuroscience show that human culture exists within the framework of human nature.

While for many years humanities discuss psychology without knowing the empirical facts discovered by modern brain science, the purpose of my two books in English, Moving Pictures and Embodied Visions, has been to show how the combination of state-of-the-art psychology and film studies provides a series of insights.

My own path has been a sinuous one.  I started out being interested in the structuralism that took a reasonably universalist stance to culture.  Then in the early 1980s I was part of a group that wanted to write a cultural history of literature based on social constructionist ideas.  It turns out, however, that many features of stories remained unchanged for hundreds and even thousand of years—even when societies changed rapidly.  The central elements of fight, love, and exploration exist in Homer’s epics as well as in action-adventure films or even video games.

After some work on the history of literature, I decided to return to a more universalist approach and soon started reading psychology and neuroscience.  In the late 1980s I became member of a small international group of film scholars, known as SCSMI (Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image); we were interested in a cognitive approach to film studies.

My special focus was on emotions.  The dominant film genres are determined by the kind of human emotions that are activated: love in romantic films, desire in pornography, violent confrontation in action films, pain and sadness in tragic melodramas, pleasurable laughter in comedies.

An important insight that focused my further research was that emotions are not “some irrational states,” but are instead motivators for actions that are in turn vital to our survival.  Those centers of the brain that control our motor actions are also central to rational thought.  This is how I came to discover the connection between films and the PECMA flow: films are a steady mental flow in viewers.

Through showing emotionally activating scenes, films motivate rational considerations about how to act on emotional impulses.  This does not only explain the flow of narratives, but also a series of aesthetic effects linked to ways in which filmmakers are able to block the flow of action to create intense subjective feelings.  The psychology of emotions also explains the mechanisms of comedies and sad melodramas: we are neurologically wired, so to speak, to cry and laugh to cope with situations that cannot be handled by action.

I consider the PECMA model to be a new aesthetic theory.