McClelland on the Film and the Brain

By Trevor Middleton

On Wednesday Oct. 9, Gonzaga’s own Dr. Richard McClelland engaged a packed Wolff Auditorium on the subject of what he said he believes is the impact evolution has had on our perception of film. McClellan surprised many students by talking about why the human brain interprets movies in the way that it does.

“I want to suggest that human beings are equipped with a complex series of cognitive abilities which makes us ideally suited to exercise imagination with films,” McClelland said.

McClelland suggested that we have a number of abilities in common with our ancestors which allow us to so thoroughly appreciate film. One of these he described as our ability to recognize faces. Everyone knows what Tom Cruise looks like. He said this ability to recognize familiar faces is about 90 percent accurate in most cases. This is only slightly impeded by any interference such as obstructions to viewing and reduction in size of the faces in question.

McClelland said there are a wide variety of animal relatives of ours that can do this as well. He pointed out specifically that primates share this ability with us.

He linked this to the ability to read emotions on peoples’ faces. This ability centers on reading the eyes of others, and tracing their gaze to determine intent. McClelland said this ability is also highly accurate.

“The ability to read the emotional expression of the face is an obvious requirement for watching films, and having an emotional response to what’s going on,” McClelland said. “We also know that close-ups of a human face tend to arouse our empathy for that character.”

McClelland described also the human ability to recognize emotional patterns in voice as a valuable part of the film experience when accompanied by the thought processes, which he said have also developed as a part of our evolution.

Among other things, McClelland also described our ability to engage in what he called “counter-factual” thinking. This is closely linked to our ability to plan, which is something that developed through evolution.

“We use our memory of past events… to predict what is going to happen next,” McClelland said.

This is made possible by our “default network,” a very primitive and long standing set of thought processes which is always at work in the human mind. Without the ability to plan and predict the world as it may be, we would not be able to create and enjoy movies that depict things which do not yet exist.

McClelland closed by clarifying that we were not in fact “developed” to watch movies. He said natural selection had not had an opportunity to refine us in that way. Instead he suggested we had simply begun using previously existing abilities to enjoy the films we are now creating.

“I think what we ought to say is that we have effectively hijacked very ancient cognitive functions for new function,” McClelland said. “That going to the movies is in many ways an exaptation. We have borrowed what natural selection has constructed for a fresh new purpose.”

Students were not all expecting to get an education on the human brain and its impact on how we watch movies, but they weren’t necessarily disappointed by what they got.

“Honestly, going into it I was expecting a presentation on different films and how films have evolved because of the name,” junior Josh Scheel said. “When the presenter started talking about the way the brain works to comprehend films I was confused, but by the end it made sense.”

There were three lectures given as a part of this year’s round of Faith, Film and Philosophy lectures. Dr. Katherin Rogers presented “ ‘Bedazzled’, the Devil, and Freedom” on Oct. 10 and Dr. Michael Foley presented “The Metaphysics of Elfland” on Oct. 11.


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