Précis of Movies on Our Minds

in Projections
James E. Cutting Emeritus, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

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Movies on Our Minds () provides structural analyses of popular, English-language cinema and maps them onto biological and psychological bases. It progresses from the details of optics and screen projection; through transitions and shots; on to scenes, montages, and syntagmas; and finally to larger narrative units and the flow of patterns of elements across whole movies. It focuses on changes in all of those patterns across a century, ascribing them to evolution. That evolution, akin to Darwinian evolution, is hallmarked by patterns of reproduction with inheritance, variation, and selection of traits over time. Two forces appear to have guided this evolution: the matching of elements of film form to predilections of the biology of our visual systems, and their matching to predilections of our cognition, particularly as it has been shaped by visual culture.

Contributor Notes

James E. Cutting is Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, where he taught in the Psychology Department from 1980 to 2020. He has published four books and over 150 scientific articles on perception, cognition, and the arts. His latest book Movies on Our Minds: The Evolution of Cinematic Engagement (Oxford Press) appeared in 2021. Orcid: 0000-0002-7338-846X. Email:

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The Journal for Movies and Mind

  • Berliner, Todd. 2017. Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Cutting, James E. 2021. Movies on Our Minds: The Evolution of Cinematic Engagement. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Cutting, James E. 2022. “Evolution of the Depiction of Telephone Calls in Popular Movies.” Projections 16 (2): 126. doi: 10.3167/proj.2022.160201.

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  • Cutting, James E., and Kacie Armstrong. 2018. “Cryptic Emotions and the Emergence of a Metatheory of Mind in Popular Filmmaking.” Cognitive Science 42 (4): 13171344. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12586.

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  • Flynn, James. 2007. What Is Intelligence? New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Smith, Tim J. 2013. “Watching You Watch Movies: Using Eye Tracking to Inform Cognitive Film Theory.” In Psychoncinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, edited by Arthur P. Shimamura, 165191. New York: Oxford University Press.

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  • Zacks, Jeffrey M. 2020. “Event Perception and Memory.” Annual Review of Psychology 71: 165191. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010419-051101.

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