Mirror Neurons and Film Studies

A Cautionary Tale from a Serious Pessimist

in Projections
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  • 1 Dept. of History of Art and Architecture and Film and Media Studies Program, Tufts University, USA malcolm.turvey@tufts.edu
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Abstract

This article surveys some of the major criticisms of mirror neuron explanations of human behavior within neuroscience and philosophy of mind. It then shows how these criticisms pertain to the recent application of mirror neuron research to account for some of our responses to movies, particularly our empathic response to film characters and our putative simulation of anthropomorphic camera movements. It focuses especially on the “egocentric” conception of the film viewer that mirror neuron research appears to license. In doing so, it develops a position called “serious pessimism” about the potential contribution of neuroscience to the study of film and art by building upon the “moderate pessimism” recently proposed by philosopher David Davies. It also offers some methodological recommendations for how film scholars should engage with the sciences.

Contributor Notes

Malcolm Turvey is Sol Gittleman Professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and Director of the Film and Media Studies Program at Tufts University. He is also an editor of the journal October. He is the author of Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2008) and The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s (MIT Press, 2011), and the co-editor of Wittgenstein, Theory, and the Arts (Routledge, 2001). His Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism was published by Columbia University Press in 2019. Email: Malcolm.Turvey@tufts.edu

Projections

The Journal for Movies and Mind

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