Psychological Approaches to Cinematic Experience

It is important that psychology is capable of connecting in some sense to theories of art as well as connecting to theories of biology and chemistry, and this is a key strength of the naturalism of the ecological approach. Far from the grossly intellectualised cognitive theory, ecological psychology begins with experience and therefore connects fluidly with both the arts on the one side and sciences on the other. I was struck by this fact when watching this video from Aeon about how we make sense of films:

Aeon provides an overview of what we could call the cognitive theory of cinematic experience, an explanation of the phenomenon of watching films derived from the cognitive approach to perception. As the video notes, when watching films, the image projected will abruptly switch to another location, character, and/or perspective: a cut. This destruction of our visual field should create a bizarre impression of discontinuity, but we accept it readily. We are able to hold on to the underlying experience of the film, and appreciate the ongoing scene, even if the projected image changes wildly and rapidly. Indeed if we are not attentive, many cuts may occur within a short period of time, and the experience is not only preserved, but may be heightened. A shot of a punch may be shown, and then cut, only to show the same action from a closer angle. In this scene, the overall experience is that of a single, more impactful punch, even though the image shown was two punches, overlapped. There is somehow a continuity of experience despite everything. This does not appear to be something we have culturally or phylogenetically adapted to, since as the Aeon video points out, such editing was unproblematic for early cinema audiences. Ontogenetically, we also know that young children can watch films that use cuts and come away with a full understanding of the experience.

Aeon explains this strange contradiction as a natural byproduct of our visual system’s functioning. Our vision is full of interruptions: blinking occurs around 17 times per minute (Bentivoglio et al., 1997), which obscures our vision for around a tenth of a second (Volkmann, 1986). Further, saccades (short “jumps” of the eye between points of fixation, as opposed to smooth movements) occur regularly, and given our visual acuity outside our fovea, it seems as though we see little of what occurs between the fixation points. So, it seems we are “functionally blind for around a third of our waking life.

This poverty of the stimulus argument is a key part of the cognitive account of perception (and more besides). All perception is reduced to the physical elements of mere stimulation, and so experience beyond this must be imputed by means of additional cognition. Or, to put it in terms that make the computer analogy explicit: there is a difference to the input and the output, so the remainder must be accounted for by computing processes.

The cognitive theory of cinematic experience is much the same idea applied to a different set of circumstances: We only see the objective physical stimulation provided by the film projection, and the sudden cuts  provide no connection between one image and the next, so the coherence of the film is an illusion provided by our brains. This recapitulates the experience of vision, which is similarly disorienting and divided, but is bound together by our brain after the fact.


Perception of permanence

While it is true to say our vision is interrupted by the action of our body, such as blinking or changing focus, it is more often interrupted by the environment in which we live. Unless you are reading this article from a featureless salt flat, or sparse tundra, you are likely to be surrounded by objects of all kinds: chairs, tables, plants, pots, pans, people, etc. And hardly any of these objects will be uninterrupted. The table may be obscured by the books and cups on it, the chairs obscured by the table, the people hidden partially behind other people. Around us constantly is far more discontinuity than there is continuity. Moreover, these objects, people in particular, are unlikely to remain still for long. If they are blocked at one moment by the passing of another in front of them, the next they may move to sit down, passing behind a wall to sitting behind a desk. If they are obscured spatially, they may be obscured temporally too, made literally invisible for a moment if they pass behind a tree while walking alongside us.

So while the cognitive theory of cinematic experience internalises film cuts, the ecological theory externalises them. The environment is fragmented like a film: people exiting stage left, objects emerging from darkness, cars ‘wiping’ across our field of view, – a smash-cut to black when the lights are switched off at night. But rarely, if at all, do we consciously feel life itself to be discontinuous in this way. Despite the lower-order information, the light physically stimulating our retina, giving us no indication of the continuation of objects beyond our sight, it is the case that objects can remain in our experience even if they are temporally or spatially discontinuous in our perception.

Albert Michotte, a Belgian psychologist, created a novel approach to investigate this phenomenon he called permanence. He was trained in the Gestalt school, and came to many of the same conclusions, by an almost entirely separate path, that Gibson himself did. The confluence of their thought is remarkable (though their common ancestor is the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka). Like Gibson, Michotte was dissatisfied by both the rationalist and empiricist explanations of perception, that we were either hallucinating order in the world, or else learning it piece by piece, groping our way out of the dark. Michotte’s career was dedicated to an anti-Cartesianism that led him against both.

His interpretation of the phenomenon of permanence was based (partially) on the “tunnel effect”, originally investigated by Wertheimer (1912), though Michotte’s observations were related to Burke’s (1952) experiments. The procedure was simple: an object was moved across a screen, with the middle of its journey obscured by a static screen. Subjects were then asked a series of questions about their experience of the object’s trajectory.

Fig 1: A variation of the tunnel effect experiment from Burke (1952), reproduced in Michotte, Thinès and Crabbé, (1964). Below A and B, the stimuli used in the experiment, are the trajectories drawn by participants.

Burke found subjects had “an absolutely compelling impression of continuous and uniform movement” (p. 379). When asked, subjects felt that the obscured movements behind the screen was no less real than movement in the unobscured parts.

The experiment was varied in many different ways, which varied the speed of entrance and exit, the timing of entrance and exit, and the point of entrance and exit, among others. The distance and duration between entrance and exit points tended to act as agents of segregation: widening these tended to break the effect of continuity, while the speed of the object through the tunnel acted as an agent of integration, with faster objects strengthening the effect. Particularly, increasing the timing of entrance and exit more than 78ms (for a 10cm tunnel) created the impression among the majority of subjects of a “halt”. Many spontaneously indicated the point on the screen behind which they were aware of the momentary stop in the movement. As Michotte notes, “The perception of a halt is essentially the perception of a time limit to the movement” (Michotte, 1964; reproduced in Thinès, Costall and Butterworth, 1991, p. 154). This halting point can be changed and modified by factors concerning the entrance and exit of the object, or disappear entirely should the entrance-exit interval wait too long. So what are participants perceiving in this experiment that varies their responses? The answer seems to be that they are percieving the totality of the movement as one moment: a gestalt, higher-order property made up of the object’s speed, direction, and trajectory.

Michotte was unconvinced that this is a learned ability, (not that he didn’t believe it had no phase of development, merely that it wasn’t bootstrapped into consciousness ex-nihilo), as does the cognitive perspective presented by the Aeon video. And in addition to arguments made previously against a purely empiricist approach to the perception of permanence, there have been fascinating investigations into this phenomenon in young children. Baillargeon (1987) found babies as young as 3½ months old can discriminate one object sliding behind another; Bertenthal, Proffitt, Spencer and Thomas (1985) found babies younger than 6 months able to distinguish the movement of humans rendered as “point light” displays (where the overall figure of the person is obscured, but their movements indicated by placing small lights on their limb joints). As Butterworth (1991) summarised these findings, “There is now a great deal of evidence to suggest that even very young babies perceive amodal completion occlusion, and spatial interposition so long as the information is presented in dynamic form.” (Butterworth, 1991; p.118 in Thinès, Costall and Butterworth, 1991. Emphasis added: once again the importance of action and movement to perception reveals itself).

The ecological theory of cinematic experience

To return to cinematic matters, a key virtue in Michotte’s complex work of distilling abstract philosophy to experimental psychology was a readiness to relate this to prosaic human activity, including viewing artwork, photos, theatre and films (another habit shared with Gibson). His 1948 work, “The character of ‘reality’ of cinematographic projections” (reproduced in Thinès, Costall and Butterworth, 1991), is a classic often referenced in film theory, but barely known to western psychologists. As I mentioned earlier in this article, it is striking that orthodox psychology mounts little effort to relate itself to everyday human experience, and this fact is particularly clear when compared to efforts of the science to harmonize with harder sciences, such as biology and chemistry. This is not only a symptom of the general separation between art and science in western society (and the privileging of science in particular), but also an effect of cognitive psychology’s alienating way of explaining natural human behaviour as the result of putative, behind-the-scenes cogitation.

The 1948 paper (ibid) is a brief but fascinating dissection of the strangeness of the cinematographic experience, including not just cuts but also the movement of perspective on a static screen, the small portion of the visual field the screen consumes, and so on. But with reference to his work on perceptual causality and permanence, we have the tools to investigate this matter scientifically, with little or no regard to hypothetical cognitions. The cut, like the tunnel effect, maintains coherency depending on its entrance and its exit. Jackie Chan’s “double hit” technique, of providing the action overlapping between cuts to make it seem a single, more powerful blow, is insoluble to a theory dedicated to the physical perception of images followed by a period of deduction (though Aeon’s video makes a thin attempt to suggest that ‘illogical’ actions would be discarded by the mind in such cases). But for a theory that bases its perspective on higher-order variables, the cut provides no obstacle, but provides demonstration of the principle at work: the relation between the start of the scene and the start of the next (akin to the entrance and exit of the tunnel) can strengthen or weaken the overall understanding of a scene. This is an example of temporal invariance in the scene.

Gibson (1979), Michotte’s fellow traveller, also developed ideas about the perception of cinematographic images (though subtly distinct from, and critical of, Michotte’s: see Gibson, Kaplan, Reynolds and Wheeler, 1969; Natsoulas, 1992), and included this passage on the “Psychology of Film-Splicing” as an example of spatial invariance in the scene.:

“A cut represents a displacement of the camera between shots. The most intelligible cuts, I suggest, are those between shots that have some invariant structure in common … The familiar sequence — long shot, medium shot, close-up — has a common structure at the center of the picture.” (Gibson, 1979, p. 285, emphasis added)

There is more work to be done in this matter, and little of it has been started, regardless of the number of tantalising questions raised by both authors (regarding animated movies, scene transitions, the variable intelligibility of cuts). And yet, it seems far more promising than the closed-off and cold explanation offered by the cognitive theory of cinematic experience.

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