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Psychological Perspectives on Film

Psychological Perspectives on Film

One of the most influential yet most overlooked aspects of film ideology is the psychological perspective. Several people that I briefly interviewed described a common experience of having a highly unpredictable emotional state. They tend to show empathy and identify themselves as the character within a particular film. More importantly, they are more likely to accept values in the film that they would otherwise doubt. To further investigate the underlying mechanism, a structured interview was conducted with psychologist Mr. David Ammerschlaeger. The main objective here was to understand the effect of film on human cognitive processes such as critical thinking abilities and value judgements.


The prefrontal cortex (PFC) attaches great dominance in critical thinking, which is the relatively ‘rational’ aspect of cognitive processes. Among five standard subdivisions of the prefrontal cortex in the mammalian bran, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is responsible for executive functions in cognitive abilities, short-term memory and abstract reasoning where all information merge together and are processed into critical, logical thinking. On the other hand, the limbic brain is responsible for the relatively ‘emotional’ aspect of cognitive processes which include three structures: the hippocampus, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain records memories of behaviours that produced agreeable or disagreeable experiences. It is also makes value judgements. (MasterClass, 2021)


Ammerschlaeger mentioned that to simply verbally elaborate theories and philosophies would appear shallow, obsolete or overly complicated. Film, however, uses symbolic representations to transcribe complicated notions in understandable audio-visual language. While the audience is watching the film, emotional cues are created unconsciously. This provides the audience with an emotional experience to justify the notion or value within the film.


A brief report by Valentiin T. Visch et al. presents an experiment testing the effect of immersion on emotional responses and cognitive genre categorization of film viewers. The results suggest that stronger immersion led to more intense emotions (Visch, 2010).


A more comprehensive meta-analysis by Fernandez-Aguilar et al. has shown that mood induction by film clips is a highly effective method to generate negative and positive affective reactions. From 2625 participants, valence ratings and arousal ratings with positive and negative audio-visual stimuli was analyzed (Fernandez, 2019). It can be concluded from the results that mood induction by film clips for both valence and arousal is significant, ranging between -1.22 to -1.77. Despite the limitations this meta-analysis suffered – which the conductors themselves have discussed – this study highlights the consequence that film clips can generate. However, this study did not include the analysis of how the changes in different film tones, aesthetics or genres influence mood induction. Also, the study did not explore how different generations and people from different cultural backgrounds would emotionally react to the same film clips. These are possible directions for future psychological research.

Written for The Film Dispatch by  Tangxuan Yan. 


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