The Eye, the Brain, the Screen – What Neuroscience Can Teach Film Theory


  • Paul Elliott



“I don’t believe that linguistics and psychoanalysis offer a great deal to the cinema. On the contrary, the biology of the brain – molecular biology – does.” Gilles Deleuze

Models of the brain are inextricably linked to the surrounding cultural episteme: whether it is viewed as a complex clockwork device, a computer, a self-regulating network or even a cinema screen, our understanding of neurophysiology has always relied on discourses and images taken from other fields. In turn, however, our knowledge of cerebral processes (such as sight for instance) has always, inevitably, affected the way that we approach artworks, literary texts and cultural artefacts.

Based on this, this paper looks at how recent neuroscientific research on vision and cognition can help us better understand the processes inherent in film theory. Focussing mainly on the recently discovered concept of the mirror neuron but also citing synaesthesia and limbic perceptual processing, I suggest that neuroscience can provide us with a fertile new ground for thinking about areas such as spectatorship and the facilitation of emotional affect, it can also offer us alternatives to monolithic ideas like the Gaze and the patriarchal nature of visual pleasure.

Prompted perhaps by a shift in scopic thinking, some recent neuroscientific research has even mirrored film and cultural theory by foregrounding notions such embodiment, cross-model perception and mimesis, adding to the dialogic relationship that exists between these two disciplines. This paper then is not only concerned with how different fields communicate but with how each can provide models, metaphors and frameworks for the other.