Ilya Kavalerov

The Cognitive and Emotional Neural Processes of Inter-subjectivity


            In the recent past, the rise of cognitive science has dramatically changed the topics of interest, and the methods and principles by which they are studied, in a variety of academic fields (Hogan 1). Since the goal of cognitive science is to form a theory of how the human mind functions, to be complete, such a theory must address the significant role of the arts in human life (Hogan 3). Our everyday life is filled with attention to narrative, whether it be watching TV, reading novels, watching movies, or listening to music. We are practically “all narrators in our daily lives, […] as research is showing increasingly clearly, the human brain is constructed in such a way that it captures many complex relationships in the form of narrative structures” (Fludernik 1). These behaviors and preferences set humans apart from other animals and point to a unique mental faculty (Deacon; Gottschall and Wilson vii). As a result, scientists like Mark Turner  “argue that cognitive science will ultimately ‘require the study’ of literature [and other arts] as a crucial product and activity of the human mind” (Hogan 2).

It was only “until recently, [that] emotion was a relatively neglected topic in film theory and philosophy of film” (Sinnerbrink 74). This essay will aim to prove that human interaction with narrative[1] fosters learning and social-type behavior, with the goal of enriching the current understanding of how the mind handles emotion in narrative contexts. Empirical scientific studies will be presented that promote the idea that viewers construct a Theory of Mind (a prediction of how a person’s mind values the world) of a character in a text, just as they do with real people in everyday life. The constructed ToM contains the reader’s predictions of the character’s own intentions, beliefs, and ultimately: desires and plans. The narrative of the text then guides the reader through events in the character’s life, where the hypothesized desires and plans are achieved or thwarted. Aesthetic experience will be described to be socially oriented, and indeed regulated at essential points by the same brain structures that regulate feelings of compassion between corporeal human beings. Emotion will be revealed as the deeply rooted, instinctual, common language that communicates the mind of another human being and then teaches that mind’s own more complex individual language (that will ultimately be used to gratify that mind at the consummation of an aesthetic experience). Emotion’s intense ability to assign value in thinking processes, its place in the maintenance of a subjectivity’s state, and as a result, in guiding an intersubjective experience, will be averred. Ultimately, encounters with art will be considered as spiritual analogues of social interactions in everyday life, with rewards identical to social connections in the physical world.

Part 1 – Philosophy and Literature

Challenging Holland with Somewhere, leaving him behind with Cavell and Wallace

When studying a certain behavior, it is valuable to examine the motivations that cause the animal to execute the behavior. If we suppose that interacting with the arts yields some sort of aesthetic experience, what are the characteristics of such an experience? What is there to gain from an interaction with a text? One perspective, voiced by literary critic Norman Holland, argues that narrative serves to stimulate a fantasy of a desired experience in the mind of its reader. “We gain pleasure in literature simply for the same reason we gain pleasure from gratifying any SEEKING,” (the all-caps are original) (Holland Literature and the Brain 332). Holland believes that literature “mimics our pleasures in life,” and compares reading to drug use (Holland Literature and the Brain 332-333). The analogy is indeed a useful one because the function of most drugs in the body is to chemically mimic native substances with a designated function. Morphine for instance resembles a class of molecules called endorphins, naturally present in the body to reward survival enhancing behavior.[2] It binds to the same signaling receptors that endorphins do, and initiates the same signaling cascade, causing relief where it is not (from the body’s perspective[3]) needed. Holland proposes that literature operates analogously: it takes advantage of some mechanism in the mind, and misuses it in a way that does not correspond to its normal function, but it still delivers a reward which motivates further literary consumption.

Holland identifies the mechanism that literature is pleasuring as an imaginative capacity known as having a Theory of the Mind (ToM). ToM is an established term for the category for processes that must occur for one mind to know another mind. To limit what it means to “know” another mind, cognitive scientists like Peter Gärdenfors isolate specific knowledge that is necessary to understand how another mind interprets and reacts to situations it encounters. For this purpose, it is enough to know where a mind’s attention is directed, its intentions, unique knowledge, and beliefs (Gärdenfors). To have a ToM of another person is to achieve intersubjectivity, at which point the behavior of another person may be anticipated and predicted. ToM allows foreign identities to be simulated within our own minds, and to be kept separate from our own identity.[4]

According to Holland, ToM’s normal function of virtually reproducing foreign minds, within our own mind, is subverted in the experience of literature. Instead, “all of us, as we read, use the literary work to symbolize and finally to replicate ourselves” (Holland "Unity Identity Text Self" 816). ToM is normally used in everyday life to theorize the identities of people around us, to help us anticipate the behavior of our social environment in order to prepare ourselves for interacting with it. However, Holland asserts that when ToM is applied to a text rather than another living self, instead of a foreign identity being represented in the mind, the reader’s “identity re-creates itself.” “We interact with the work, making it part of our own psychic economy and making ourselves part of the literary work.” The motivation for this misuse of ToM[5] is that

“any individual shapes the materials the literary work offers him – including its author – to give him what he characteristically both wishes and fears, and that he also constructs his characteristic way of achieving what he wishes and defeating what he fears” (Holland "Unity Identity Text Self" 816-817).

Holland’s solipsistic argument makes it is impossible to achieve intersubjectivity with a character in literature (that is, to know a work’s character’s intentions, unique knowledge…) without it being adulterated with a personal agenda. Thus, any original reward[6] that motivated the development of the ToM ability cannot apply to literature since ToM is not used properly (in a way that simulates the external) (Holland Literature and the Brain 322). Instead, while reading, the reader’s ToM fantasizes accomplishing behaviors that the reader desires in real life (or thwarts behaviors that the reader fears in real life). The products of reading are substitutes for achievements in everyday life, and pleasure increases as a virtualized achievement approaches complete mimicry of the real achievement the reader personally desires.

            For Holland, the extent to which a reader may enjoy a text is determined only by how much of himself the reader may find in, and be able to insert into, the text. By this principle, to interact with art is to seek the personal, and the pleasure of the text comes from achieving preconceived personal wants in the imagination. It is up to the reader’s creativity to rework the perceived text into a fulfillment of a wish already seated in their identity. The aesthetic experience as Holland describes it, is both highly dependent on the reader, and can bring nothing new to the reader. Each “person’s identity re-creates itself through literary” experience; foreign texts are made familiar before they can gratify and produce an aesthetic experience (Holland "Unity Identity Text Self" 817).

Questioning Holland with a Limiting Case

            It would follow that if art failed to facilitate an individual’s recreation and realization of his own personal history and desires, then it would not be good art. If a text interfered with a person’s recreation of himself in a text, then the text would be considered inaccessible and poorly designed. What is there to be said then about a text that purposefully suppresses the preconceptions and desires of its audience? Is there a need to learn another mind, or should the same time be spent reinstating your own mind?

Somewhere, a 2010 film by Sophia Coppola, starts with and contains many such scenes that superficially alienate its viewers. At the peak of the sound of an engine revving up, the camera first flicks on to reveal a section of looped asphalt surrounded by empty plains. A blurry black triangle speeds past the audience’s view, and makes several more laps on the track. The nondescript car spends more time off the screen then on, as the car approaches the camera’s position the vroom of its racing engine builds up, only to immediately die off as it seems to slow down, maybe for a corner not visible on the screen. Apart from the quick blip of the car, there is no motion or detail in the monotone beige desert to attract the viewer’s attention. But eventually, the whine of the car winds down off screen, and the car rolls back into view. It stops in front of the camera, and the driver kills its engine. He lazily steps out while the exhaust’s manifold crackles from cooling and contracting, and the dash gives off an annoyingly familiar tinging, silenced when the car-door is swung shut. The driver is wearing a blank T-shirt, blue jeans, and a workman’s boots. His step is heavy. He slowly sweeps an underwhelmed glance from the car to some point off screen that he stares at for a while before the camera cuts off.

Much has been eliminated from this supposed typical male fantasy of racing a Ferrari around a track. The few associations that a quickly fading black blur and its engine note may remind a viewer of cannot be brought to the scene. Feelings of excitement, which the subject of this scene conceptually calls for, are made unavailable to viewers since these feelings are obviously out of place in this boring scene. The use of the standard paradigm for this scene, the thrill of speeding an exotic car around a track, seems inappropriate and disallowed. How can the viewer escape into this scene to be entertained, when the actor (for whom the screen is reality) cannot even escape his own gloom through his (real) recreational activity? What would Holland say of this film, which informs the viewer of a possibility to play out a popular fantasy, while doing everything possible to work against the realization of this fantasy for as long as the viewer continues to watch the screen? Is there a purpose to this scene, should it be dismissed as torment and not art, and if so, isn’t that depressingly selfish?

Norman Holland’s theory cannot account for the opening scene of Somewhere, from his claims, the only way to enjoy the foreign, is to make it familiar and only to process it if it suits endogenous desires. He would affirm that only personal lived experience can set the desires that narrative helps a person imagine accomplishing. Holland maintains that art reaffirms the identity of the viewer; it does not shape it. When the opening scene of Somewhere proves otiose to the viewer’s expectations, Holland would urge us to ignore the indigestible film. For Holland, the strategies for assimilating experiences are set/established outside of the sphere of art. Thus, the aspects of a film that are incongruous with the viewer are useless to the viewer. Holland’s viewer is locked inside of herself; finitely limited in her interpretations of a film/artwork by her own pre-existing desires. Intersubjectivity, in any unpolluted-by-self (objective) sense, is impossible when your own subjectivity is inescapable, since all other subjectivities will simply be analogues of your own subjectivity. In Holland’s fantasy-theory, when you seek (and recognize) you cannot avoid seeing versions of yourself everywhere, since you adapt everything you see in terms of your own self. Subjectivity cannot help but compromise any pure objectivity.

The realization of this limitation is referred to as “modern scepticism – [i.e.] the view that we can have no certain knowledge of the world; the view that we remain […] isolated from reality/Being” (Sinnerbrink 103). The “sceptic” assumption, which Holland maintains in his claims about our experience of art, is the focus of the work of Stanley Cavell, professor at Harvard University and one “of the most original and influential of the new film-philosophers” (Sinnerbrink 90), and of his previous student David Foster Wallace,[7]  “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years” (Noland and Rubin). Primarily in 1979’s The World Viewed and 1981’s Pursuits of Happiness, Cavell postulates a mechanism for how “the experience of film affords us a way of contending with scepticism(Sinnerbrink 103). Wallace, who “has internalized the writing – and thinking – habits of Stanley Cavell,” dramatizes this solution in 1996’s Infinite Jest, which chronicles the life of the ultimate “sceptic,” and the film made to shatter his “scepticism” (Stuttaford, Simson and Zaleski). Thus, both writers oppose Holland’s view that art is the continuation of “scepticism” and self imprisonment, with the assertion that instead art, and especially film, is a way to destroy “scepticism.”

To situate and expand upon the solipsistic dilemma that Holland embraces:

“what goes by the name of ‘scepticism’ in academic philosophy […] is what Cavell calls the human ‘disappointment’ with the human – specifically, with human finitude […] what Cavell calls my ‘separation’ from, or the ‘separateness’ of, the world and others” (Kalar 63).

The “human finitude” is the concept that my vision is limited by my subjectivity, everything I see, I must see through a subjective lens; thus I have no access to the world without myself. My experience of the world is separated from all others’ experience of the world; other subjectivities are proscribed outside the limits of my own subjectivity.

The instinctive way to handle scepticism, is to repress your suspicions of it by thrusting yourself into the world; that is, to deny your own existence as a distinct viewer of the world, and to pretend to belong homogeneously to the world (as opposed to belonging in any balance with it). Cavell describes this innate reaction as undertaking “a ‘mode of uncreated life’ in which the human individual is unable to speak – unable to say ‘I’ and claim his or her existence” (Kalar 67). Scepticism is such a difficult burden that it is automatically suppressed by those who realize it, resulting in a “conformity, [where] we submit to emptiness in order to repress our separateness” (Kalar 68). Because of its necessary concealment, before we may even try to eliminate scepticism, we must first make it vulnerable by reversing its desperate intellectual repression. This may only be done by letting “true need, say desire, be manifest and be obeyed; call this the acknowledgment of separateness” (Cavell 45). To make ourselves aware of the scepticism that we will try to unseat, we must rekindle our desire to express and thus make visible our self; only then can we try to challenge our debilitating sceptic relationship to the world.

The sceptic’s dilemma[8] is lucidly staged in David Foster Wallace’s best-known book, Infinite Jest, cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English novels of the last 90 years (Grossman and Lacayo). The novel centers on a character named

“Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, [who] theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 695).

Hal is empty as a result of his submission to Cavell’s conformity, the natural repression of the feelings and expressions that constitute an individual and set him apart from the world. Yet he is “not dumb” enough to be oblivious to the lively cost of such self-removal, in fact Hal suspects [A1] the fear that induces it. Hal’s self repression leaves him “seeing ’full and fleshy’ concepts like happiness and love as stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas,” simultaneously, his astute self-criticality leads him to hate his anhedonic condition, which Hal considers to be satisfactory only for subhuman entities (Boswell 156). Hal ultimately longs for “a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion” that would upturn his scepticism, but this first requires  filling his emotional void[9] and being able to communicate[10] (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 694).

To engage in the emotional interchanges that will give him freedom from repression, Hal himself needs to become the-being-that-needs and desires (emotional contact), which on his working theoretical plane (i.e. the unhuman, but the sole mode of his being), sounds disgustingly[11] inefficient. However, the feeling-and-believing real human being that is endowed with an emotional input jack is present, albeit buried deeply inside Hal. Thus, it is possible for Hal to defeat scepticism but he cannot do so on his own (despite[12] his great intellect) because “the resolution of scepticism takes the form not of an intellectual solution […] but rather of a form of therapy […] to undo the denial or repression, to bring about an acknowledgment and an acceptance of the separateness [A2] of the world and others” (Kalar 68). Otherwise, he remains in solitary confinement with only “the curious feeling that he goes around feeling like he misses somebody he’s never met,” (that is, the feeling-and-believing render of himself[13]) (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 1053 n281).

The solution to Hal’s problem, the McGuffin of the novel Infinite Jest, thus comes in the form of a remedial video called “Infinite Jest.” The creator of Hal’s antidote is his own father, known primarily as “Himself,” a director known for his filmography’s ability to offer “freedom from one’s own head, one’s inescapable P.O.V” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 742). Himself confirms[14] that the film “Infinite Jest” indeed was meant to open a door out of Hal’s lonely cage,[15] to be

a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. […] Something the boy would love enough to induce him to open his mouth and come out — even if it was only to ask for more. Games hadn’t done it, professionals hadn’t done it, impersonation of professionals hadn’t done it. His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life. A magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh. To bring him ‘out of himself,’ as they say. The womb could be used both ways” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 2448ebook).

The film, in short, provides Hal with something he doesn’t know, and was never able to get by himself, entertainment. It accomplishes this by simulating for Hal the most desirable thing[16] a human being can wish for, something so enticing that it will destroy his wish for self-sufficiency and facilitate his irreversible “escape from ‘annular’ self-consciousness, from ‘thought helixes’ and ‘analysis paralysis’” (Boswell 164).[i] The entertainment thus births[17] him into the human world economy of receiving from others, and therefore desiring others.


 “’Do not confuse sympathy for the subject and empathy with it one of the two is bad.’” “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way[18],” David Foster Wallace

            My objective thus far outlined in this essay: to allay Holland’s argument that art maroons its reader in her own skull, with the claim that art gives imaginative access to other selves, is clearly a goal that I share with (and in this sentence, paraphrase from) David Foster Wallace’s own ambitions for his fiction, and Stanley Cavell’s aspirations in his essays (McCaffrey 127). Like I claim that art does much more than gratify the desires of an isolated viewer, the above epigraph is from a novella in which Wallace tried to “reaffirm the idea of art being a living transaction between humans” (McCaffrey 142).

Could Holland ever agree that the film that saves Hal from his anhedonia, “Infinite Jest,” that provides a permanent eschewal of self, is good art for Hal? “Infinite Jest” of course does not make [Hal] form “expectations [that] draw on [his] experience” and “enabl[e] [him] to project [his] own wish-fulfilling fantasies into it” (Holland Literature and the Brain 350, 346). Would he agree with Wallace that art must change its viewer, especially “in dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR […] to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human” (McCaffrey 131)? Holland’s introspective fantasization theory cannot account for the film’s resolve to correct Hal’s emotional deficiencies; its intention to force him to look outside of his own identity to learn and share the desires of others.[ii] But this is precisely how learning in the physical world occurs, we look outside of ourselves and evaluate how well adjusted our behavior is to our environment. In the next section, I will propose and scientifically defend the idea that as social animals, not only do we learn from and adjust to our social interactions in everyday life, but that we use those same mental tactics in the environments that all art, but especially film, simulates.

Part 2 – Research from the Natural Sciences

It is against the functional principles of the human mind to resist adapting to new situations and environments. Pavlov’s famous example of a dog salivating at the ring of a bell, verifying that it had learned to anticipate food after the bell was regularly rung before feeding, proves that even simple brains can form expectations and adapt their behavior to their environment. Holland tries to cast the brain’s encounter with art as an exception of all of its other encounters. His claim that “our brains are functioning differently from the way they function in ordinary life” when they experience art goes against recent neurological studies of how humans and closely related simians (via mirror neurons, discussed soon) handle representations and narratives (Holland Literature and the Brain 6). In this section, evidence will be given of how low-levels of the brain account for immediate self-adjustment during an experience, proving the ability for humans (and some other select species) to quickly take up information about people from their environment without cognitively using their own identity as a reference. To adequately discuss how Holland’s theory underestimates the openness of the human mind as a result of some uniquely social neural structures, it is necessary to outline the brain structures that enable a viewer to learn from an artwork, and to absorb expectations more so from environmental cues then from a self’s own history or beliefs. In this section, the basis for a scientific opposition to the narcissistic idea that a mind misuses its ToM ability and instead gratifies its own preexisting desires will emerge.

Objective - A Brief Introduction

Regardless of the great differences that may be apparent between the minds of two people, it is possible to reconstruct the subjective experience of another human being through a medium such as film. The fact that two people do not share the same memories to evaluate their situations with does not bar the ability to construct a ToM of another being. The memories of passed personal experience is not manipulated to tailor a conception of another mind, rather, it is the function of universal brain structures regulating emotions that will be shown to make possible a kind of basic communication that guides the construction of a ToM.

To take an ecological approach: since a person extracts pleasure or displeasure from his existence in some environment, to understand the relationship between an individual and his environment is to be able to identify the desires of another person. For this understanding to occur, a viewer automatically and mimetically experiences the same visceral emotional reactions that she observes in the other person’s interaction with his environment. Thus, she is put into a position from which she may learn a pattern correlating the other person’s emotions with the environment, and thus the values associated with that environment. Through this form of associative learning, the viewer is able to hypothesize about what in the environment must be changed in order to satisfy the character. The narrative of a text or movie thus works to develop expectations in its reader for the character, before the narrative then moves to satisfy these expectations. Thereby, the text fulfills the expectations of the reader by fulfilling the desires of the mind that the reader effectively simulated, giving a unique kind of aesthetic pleasure to reader as the (guided) architect of that mind. This section will introduce this predictive capacity in the mind, and reveal emotion as the driving force that enable this type of cognitive anticipation to be pleasurable for a reader/viewer of a narrative.

Identifying and Connecting does not require “wish fulfillment” as its motivation

            The brain is an assembly of individual units called neurons, and their ability to integrate and store information is made possible by their ability to interconnect, forming particular physical arrangements of discrete paths, and on a greater scale, structures (Damasio 51). Certain parts of the brain, like the previously discussed proto-self or core-self, are themselves large assemblies of neurons. There is one such a group of neurons in the brain that were discovered in 1996 and coined “mirror neurons.” And if the generally accepted understanding of mirror neurons as the structure within our brains that “let[s] us understand the intentions of other people” by mimetically simulating other people’s minds within our own mind proves true (Iacoboni 34), then there is scientific basis behind my claim that an interaction with art is a cognitive play directed towards understanding our social environment in a new way, and not a stimulant to selfishly reenact our well established personal fantasies.

This present understanding of mirror neuron’s integral role in the social interactions of select species was gradually reached by analyzing a curious set of observations in Giacomo Rizzolatti’s lab in Parma, Italy, with macaque monkeys. When an experimenter would pick up a piece of food in sight of a monkey, areas in the monkey’s brain that activated when the monkey itself handled a piece of food would activate. In fact, by recording the brain activity of the monkey both while it picked up food and ate it, and when it picked up food and placed it in a container, experimenters were able to differentiate between the groups of neurons (to within 3 mm in any of three dimensions)[19] that activated in the monkey when they themselves picked up food and ate it, or picked up food to place it in a container in plain sight of the monkey (Iacoboni 32). Similar experiments were carried out nearly a decade later with non-invasive fMRI scans on human brains, in contrast to the implanted electrode studies with the monkeys (Winerman). Keysers and his colleagues moved away from the motor region of the brain (to explore if mirroring was exclusive to limb movement), and recorded the brain activity, and the facial expressions, of 14 people who smelled the chemical likeness of rotten butter (Winerman). The brain activity of the participants was then recorded again while each watched the video of the facial expressions of another participant. Astoundingly, the “researchers found that both feeling disgusted and watching someone else look disgusted activated a particular segment of an olfactory area of the participants' brains called the anterior insula“ (emphasis mine) (Winerman). Virtually the same experiment was replicated with tactile sensations, where watching a feather touch another participant’s leg stimulated the same area of the brain (this time the somatosensory cortex) as when participants felt a feather touch their own leg within a certain spot; Keysers called this ”tactile empathy” (Winerman). That is, mirror neurons were stimulating the same neural representation of an experience in a brain, whether that brain belonged to a subject who directly experienced something, or simply viewed another subject experience something.

This “simple fact that a subset of the cells in our brains – the mirror neurons – fire when an individual kicks a soccer ball, sees a ball being kicked, hears a ball being kicked, and even just says or hears the word "kick" leads to amazing consequences and new understandings” (Iacoboni 12). Neuroscience has empirically proven that humans (and similar simians) can effortlessly share bodily states (motions, sensations, emotions[20]) in a variety of visual, olfactory, or aural interactions.[21] This is effectively a universal and effortless method of communication between individuals. Mirror neurons enable one mind to generate a neural representation of what another unconnected, but visible, living being experiences, whether it be a movement, emotional disgust, or bodily sensation. In effect, mirror neurons allow the channeling of experience even between the minds of strangers. “Mirror neurons seem to bridge the gap between one agent and another; to represent ‘my action’ and ‘your action’ in the same way” in each of our brains (Heyes 1). This evidence, that it is natural for a variety of sensory information to automatically be used to reconstruct and simulate specific actions and sensations of others’ bodies (movements and tinglings) and brains (emotions), leads to the neuroscientist’s[22] conclusion that at “root, as humans we identify the person we're facing as someone like ourselves(Winerman).[23]

A question thus arises: how is the neural representation of another mind cognitively handled? Once the emotion of disgust is mirrored in a viewer’s mind, does the viewer herself become infected with the disgust, or does she understanding that the source of disgust (in her own mind) is another mind’s, and thereby use that information to construct a ToM of the person that she is viewing? My argument is that the study of mirror neurons does in fact suggest the latter, and thus does not confirm the theory of Norman Holland from Part 1, who proposed that art largely presents a viewer’s fantasy actions in a way that allows the viewer to take them as her own, and to simulate herself enacting them. What mirror neurons suggest is that when we experience a narrative (or an everyday situation) and engage with its characters, “we do not arrive at the ‘parallel [i.e. the same] emotion’ [to the character] through centrally imagining ourselves as the character in the situation” and taking ownership of those automatically simulated actions/emotions (emphasis mine) (Smith 79). The term central[24] succinctly embodies the shortcoming of Holland’s perspective, which is that viewers can only attribute experience that they absorb to their own (already created) identity when interacting with art; in effect, that a viewer can only understand characters as selective versions of her presently known self. Mirror neurons do more than just explain their facilitation of primitive empathy,[25] of literally feeling another’s pain or pleasure, and do not act as reminders of an established identity or known experiences.

Mirror neurons not only allow one mind to learn the emotions of another mind, but also the goal oriented directions of these emotions. They allow a mind to understand the concerns and goals of another mind, and thus make possible the formation of a ToM. It has already been observed that mirror neurons can learn to link their activation with arbitrary targets, proving that their function may be complicated by the mammalian capacity for learning. Initially, mirror neurons do not activate when we view (or hear or smell) a bodily state that is not within our own repertoire (Iacoboni 40). For instance: although a monkey’s mirror neurons activate when an experimenter picks up food with a “precision” grip (thumb and index finger) that imitates the shape of a tool (pliers), they do not activate when an experimenter uses the tool itself to pick up the piece of food, that is, at first. It is only “after repetitive observation, [that] a response to the tool may appear. We thus see the ability to learn new constraints on a case slot: in this case the observed generalization of the ‘instrument' role from hands alone to include pliers(Rizzolatti and Arbib). Familiar neural representations may eventually be mapped to new actions. The capacity for learning is typically explained with the famous “neurons that fire together wire together” paradigm, whereupon if a certain neuron A’s firing causes a signal cascade, and then if neuron A and B fire simultaneously (enough times), neuron B will also trigger the same signaling cascade when it fires in solitude (epitomized in Pavlov’s dog experiment) (LeDoux 216). Since this learning paradigm applies to all neurons, a possibility for mirror neurons specifically is that the inherent neural connections, for instance those that allow the simulation of an emotional state, can now be linked to other external stimuli.[26] Mirror neurons, when combined with the concept of learning, can account for the association of personal value via emotions (i.e. particular bodily states) to previously abstract and unrecognizable gestures in a way that imprints the another’s weighty values on previously meaningless and novel stimuli. In the same way that the monkey’s “picking up food to eat it” neural representation was able to be mapped to an arbitrary symbol like “pliers,” our neural representations of “boredom” could be mapped to Ferraris.

Experimental evidence shows just how quickly this link can be made if the viewer is given the right hints juxtaposed, versus just from continual repetition (as with the pliers case). If a monkey is brought in front of an experimenter standing next to a screen, and then sees the experimenter reach behind that screen (outside of the monkey’s visual field), no particular activation/firing of the monkey’s mirror neurons is observed during this pantomime (Iacoboni 40). However, if the monkey sees (uninhibited) an experimenter picking up a piece of food in a way that stimulates its mirror neurons to fire, and then a screen is placed in front of the piece of food and the experimenter repeats the now obscured gesture, the monkey’s mirror neurons discharged indicating that “the monkey could just imagine what was happening behind the screen(Rizzolatti, Fogassi and Gallese). The fact that the monkey exhibited the neural representation of a familiar action (picking up the food to eat it) when it was presented a previously alien action (moving the hand behind a screen), exhibits the monkey’s ability to learn/generate an expectation and an understanding of the result of a once unknown action. When coupled with the concept that gestures already in a group of mirror neurons’ built in repertoire are differentiated by the result of those actions (picking up food to eat versus to move it can be represented differently in the brain (Iacoboni 33)), these observations indicate that mirror neurons allow brains to adaptively predict the (intended) results of other beings’ actions.

This, in effect, appears to elucidate the development of an abstract gestural language with personal meanings; whereby certain symbolic actions are learned to signify particular meanings/expected results. It so happens that these neural excitements that are “action descriptions” in humans are found (via noninvasive PET scanning) in the part of the brain including Broca’s area, an essential link our ability to communicate verbally (Rizzolatti and Arbib). The associative learning that was seen to reveal the closed (discrete repertoire) inborn mirror neuron system as the potential origin of an open (expanded by learning) system of symbols, indicates that perhaps “the first open system to evolve en route to human speech was a manual gestural system that exploited the observation and execution matching system described“ (emphasis original) (Rizzolatti and Arbib). Some academics reason that since speech is just another “action that involves the tongue, lips and vocal chords, […] speech and other instrumental actions – seem to have an overlapping neural basis(Azar).

I propose that these telic[27] capable mirror neurons enable a common universal language that allows one individual to learn the specific language of another individual in everyday life, movies, and novels, that will then be used to develop a map of expectations/desires constituting a ToM of that individual. Specifically, this is a movement from primitive empathy (where an emotion, versus a sensation or resultant action, is mirrored between two beings), to what I will call sympathy. I share my version of sympathy with the film theorist Ed Tan, for whom sympathy is when “empathy calls up expectations about what a particular character is going to do and how he or she will react to events” (Tan 192). More precisely, once a mirror-able emotion is attached to a symbolic action, sympathy will occur when that symbolic action is then cognitively expected to result from a situation or a narrative, creating a tense expectation of the symbol that carries that emotion. This tension is then resolved when the system of symbols (that the plot of a story manipulates) finally delivers the right symbol to trigger the empathetically trained emotion. This creates the effect that when a “protagonist experiences the satisfaction of achieving his goal, the viewer who sympathizes with [him] will feel an empathetic pleasure” synchronously (Tan 178).

Although mirror neurons can stimulate neural representations of more than just emotions, I focus on empathy because of how persuasive emotions are to our cognitive frameworks when they are entangled in them. Emotion, the deeply rooted self-orienting force that predates any cognitive language, drives the mental manipulation of symbols (the processing of narrative, i.e. the simulation of the plot as a story inside your head) by rewarding the brain when the triggering symbol is generated. This is because when “mirror neurons are truly involved in understanding an action, they should also discharge when the [viewer] does not actually see the action but has sufficient clues to create a mental representation of it(Rizzolatti, Fogassi and Gallese). The job of a narrative, then, is to create a symbol-emotion pair that the viewer anticipates, and to guide the viewer with clues to that symbol (and its resultant emotion) with a story (an arrangement of symbols). The achievement of the emotion will be rewarded by a simultaneously consummated empathy between the viewer (who herself achieved the emotion by manipulating the plot’s symbols) and the character, who will visibly achieve this emotion on the screen as well, making the triggered feeling of empathy a communal experience. Thus, the viewer experiences acentral sympathy, a desire for a character’s goal to be symbolically achieved within the story, which is satisfied by the uniting and positive feeling of central empathy, making empathy an end, and the motive of sympathy, which is the mechanism. In turn, the anticipation as a result of the act of being sympathetic heightens the pleasures of empathy.

The justification for the development of this interplay of emotion (empathy) and cognition (sympathy) from an evolutionary standpoint is as an adaptation to an environment where humans’ “survival and success depends crucially on our ability to thrive in complex social situations(Gallese, Keysers and Rizzolatti 396). It is evident that when “humans try to understand and simulate the feelings, motives, and cognitive focus of other members of their species” they are improving their chances of reacting favorably to their dynamic social environment (Grodal 86). It is clear then that this experience (not simulation!) of sympathy during our interaction with fiction is akin to our experience of sympathy in the everyday world, and thus makes use of an evolutionary advantageous adaptation in precisely the same way that it could be utilized in everyday life. Our capacity for sympathy, to desire goals for others to be achieved, and empathy, our understanding of other people’s feelings, both come as adaptations to other peoples’ consciousnesses. Our interaction with narrative, which is clearly driven by goal direction towards an end, matches the kind of predictive behavior that we undertake everyday to ready ourselves for the ever changing world (Fludernik 2). Mirror neurons essentially prove that “artists are unknowingly exploiting the organization of the brain” as it arose to be used (Zeki 204).

Part 3 – History of the Driving Force

            I’ve highlighted emotion as the capability of the brain that makes narrative possible. After all, a narrative first strives to achieve links between symbols and emotions via mirror neurons, and then creates a plot tension that leads the reader to cognitively anticipate the achievement of a particular symbol and its linked emotion. For this tension to be compelling, and to maintain the viewer’s interest in the progress of the narrative, emotion must take the role of a strong, leading, driving force. As it will be shown in this section, emotion is indeed a powerful motivator that developed to provide an evolutionary advantage, and is deeply rooted in the history of the brain as the orienting force that empowers desires, behaviors, and expectations. The brain, as the main authority of a body’s behavior, will be shown to have developed emotions as a response to the need to command the body to be harmonious with its environment.

How the Brain Moves/Adjusts the Body

The ultimate goal of the brain is to allow the body to replicate and proliferate its own genetic code throughout its environment,[28] however the genetic code’s intra-body survival is a prerequisite for its inter-body and extra-body dissemination. A body multiplies its internal genetic code by extracting and transforming materials from the external environment; air, food, water, and sunlight, into itself. The brain manages the body that converts these foreign reactants into domestic products, and ensures that as the environment and its availability of reactants changes, the body will adjust and equilibrate its activity to these changes, so that it may continue to perpetuate the products that constitute its own genetic code. The process described is called homeostasis (Damasio 304). The primary function of the brain is thus to maintain a containment for the genetic code (this containment is also called the internal milieu (Damasio 138)) that can survive in an environment by being dependent on and changing with its surroundings. The genetic code’s ubiquitous survival instinct motivates this bodily maintenance, which relies upon the brain’s efficient regulation of the body-environment relationship to conserve the genetic code no matter how the composition of the environment changes.

            A body in a steady state cannot stabilize the genetic code in the face of a changing environment. The brain must continuously adjust the mechanisms that transform environmental resources into more genetic code. It becomes clear that for the brain to know how to adjust the body to the environment, it needs to know both the state of the environment, and the state of the body. The origin of a sense of self, initially a sense of an immediate physical state, would clearly have facilitated survival. In the brain, this isolated view of a single thing, the state of the subject, is called a first order map of the self (Damsio’s synonym is: proto-self 154). It is a map in so far as it is a neural pattern in the brain as a result of an organism’s internal milieu communicating with the brain.[29] In the same way that internal sensors map the state of the body in the brain, external sensors may map the state of the surroundings in the brain. The interplay of these two maps generates the body-environment relationship that is essential knowledge for survival.[30] The meta-image of the interaction of the body’s image, and its environment’s image, in the brain is called the second order map of the self, and is also called the core self (Damasio 174). The relational quality of the core self thus logically arises from the organism’s motivation to survive.

            The core self is the necessary starting point for a discussion of cognition and emotion because the core self both establishes a clear motive, and a scale, to make value judgments in accordance to. The core self reveals that the brain is concerned with changing the body as the environment changes, and deems that a change which minimizes discord between body and the environment is favorable, and will occur to maximize survival.[31] The core self thus has an evolutionary[32] and (with the help of hindsight) justifiable origin, and its implications can be used to understand the more complex workings of a modern human viewer’s consciousness, which is itself a newer derivative[33] of the core self.

            The greatest benefit of taking this kind of an evolutionary logic approach to describe the brain, is that it is possible to prioritize the function of one structure over another’s, based on the ages of the structures. The age of a structure is determined by both its location in the human brain,[34] and by identifying when that structure started to appear in animal development[35] (phylogeny) (LeDoux 123). The proto self, for instance, is along the midline of the brain, right at the center, and the core self is built outwards from the center on top of the proto self (Damasio 155, 196). The earlier appearance of a structure in the evolutionary tree indicates that the structure was more essential to the support of life than other structures that follow it. A structure’s greater age also implies that the structure is less prone to vary within a population than a newer structure, since it has had more time to specialize and perfect itself over evolutionary history. It is possible to assign a structure as having an essential (but partial[36]) role in a particular function through modern imaging techniques that show which areas of the brain are in use when patients are stimulated in certain ways (LeDoux 154). After assigning functions to areas, they too can be ordered on a scale of age, and therefore importance and priority in the maintenance of life, i.e. the brain’s body.

The most outward (and therefore newest) layer of the brain that needs to be explored in order to locate where the most consequential processing occurs, is the core self. The core self relies on emotions, from which feelings are generated. Although the terms emotions and feelings are often used interchangeably in colloquial speech, there is a clear useful distinction to apply in neuroscience. According to Joseph LeDoux, a prominent neuroscientist:

“The basic building blocks of emotions are neural systems that mediate behavioral interactions with the environment, particularly behaviors that take care of fundamental problems of survival” (LeDoux 125).

Emotions already accompany the model of the core self. The core self is responsible for the neural images of the body and the environment interacting to determine the future course of the body (its behavior), with the goal of sustaining and multiplying the genetic code. Emotions can thus be considered as the bodily responses to the environment that change the operation of the organism to better suit survival in that instance: “emotions evolved to manage action” (Hjort and Laver 267). On the other hand, to have a feeling, is to notice or be aware of, the presence of emotion in the body. To be aware of one’s own body is in essence to be conscious, thus “feelings can only occur when a survival system is present in the brain that also has the capacity for consciousness” (LeDoux 125). Immediately, it is clear that this is a completely different concept since neither the proto nor the core self produce the capacity for consciousness in the brain. But instead of continuing to go outwards in the brain and explain the structural origin of consciousness,[37] it is instead more fruitful for now to focus on the power of emotions that was just revealed.

Pinpointing the Importance of Emotions in Driving Intersubjectivity

Emotions arise from structures closer to the midline of the brain, and thus predate, and take precedence over consciousness. In other words, the emotion of a moment precedes the consciousness of that emotion of the moment; conscious perception lags behind emotional equilibration. Emotion describes the internal environment of the body in an unconscious way, which is directly correlated to the external environment of the body. Thus, when consciousness reads the emotion present in the body, this is equivalent to consciousness reading the environment’s immediate relation to the body. Therefore consciousness, which creates the subjective qualification of feeling, is caught up in the immediacy of the environment. Emotion is the fuel of subjective consciousness[iii] (i.e. subjectivity), and because of the volatile[38] and unconscious nature of emotion, the subjectivity of a brain appears much more rigid, discontinuous, and enigmatic, when viewed from its own perspective. Emotion is thus the perfect level of communication between beings: the emotional values that the activity of mirror neurons may imbed into cognitive symbols leads to a visceral low level, high priority, processing of that information to occur in the brain. Emotion developed as a strong guiding force that changes the function of beings’ bodies, therefore it is the ideal value to be given to the elements of stories for viewers to be highly engaged in those stories.

Coming Back to the medium of Film

If the goal of a film is to facilitate the creation of a Theory of Mind of its main character, for a film to allow a viewer to hypothesize and recreate the subjectivity of the hero of the film, it must ensure that the viewer absorbs the same perspective of the environment that the hero maintains. By equating the emotional states of viewer and hero, the subjective processing that occurs in both the viewer and the hero will have common emotional motivations and thus analogous progressions. Film as a medium is very well equipped to interpose its own world[39] between the viewer and the reality of the viewer. In fact, the first step of generating a ToM (the convincing relation of a new environment) is not only a longstanding and intrinsic characteristic of the medium of film, but is even desired by the audience. When a movie is played in its ideal setting, a movie theater, the audience wants the film to saturate their senses. The screen that displays the alien virtual world of the film is as big and bright as possible while the familiar and constant physical environment of the theater is muted and dark. The seats are on an incline[40] so that obstructions to an audience member’s view of the screen are minimized. When another viewer does get up and blocks the audience’s view, the audience becomes annoyed because their continuous stream of visual information is interrupted by the other environment that they wish to detach from. Similarly, when other viewers talk, audience members also become annoyed since the new auditory world is polluted with the environment that they wish to eradicate, i.e. make invisible and inaudible. Thus “we are affected by the visual and auditory patters just as we would be if these events were taking place in real life” (Hjort and Laver 270). Film is the perfect medium to introduce a new way of perceiving because the simulated world naturally abstracts the physical environment with its saturation of the viewer’s visual and auditory senses, and this new world is not only accepted, but preferred to the old one by the audience.

The creation of a ToM hinges on the viewer equilibrating to the hero’s perception of the environment. Mirror neurons first relate the emotional value that certain events and actions in the narrative environment have for the protagonist by simulating that experience in a viewer’s mind. As a result of communicating the hero’s environment and his value judgments of it, a viewer will formulate the film’s hero’s state of mind. The further processing that continues in the mind will be in sync between viewer and hero, who will, at best, desire and feel in unison. This will enable the narrative to set up the viewer’s anticipation of an accomplishment of a particular symbol that has been linked with positive emotional value, which is both cognitively (within the plot) and emotionally longed for. Emotion thus has the role of constructing the suspense that heightens the excitement of this expectation, and of delivering the emotional reward upon the consummation of this expectation.

This orienting force that guides the viewer in film is best discussed as the iterative use of emotions by the auteur of the film, is can be referred to as the mood of the film. Mood, as simply a trend of emotions, has the same deep functional basis in the brain as its constituent emotions. Repeated display of a collection of emotions creates a mood, and saturates the audience’s minds with that mood, ensuring that the state of the audience’s bodies are well engaged with the perspective on screen, rather their own perspective. Audience members may have residual[41] emotional states from the previous environment that they came from before arriving at the movie theater. What will quicken the balancing of emotional states to the environment is not just the perception of the world, and behaviors of individuals that are already equilibrated to the world, but an exaggerated and repeated perception of the world as the hero of the film would see it.

The mood of the film specifically can be discussed in two facets, being the content (the what) and the structure of the content (how the what is shown). The content falls into the category of empathetically mirroring Johnny’s visually available facial expressions, and movements, and sound of his voice. This is the exact function of mirror neurons discussed earlier, where the viewer sees a bored look on Johnny’s face, and the viewer’s mirror neurons automatically generate the neural representation of a bored emotion, ready to be mapped onto a concurrent association (the racetrack, the strippers, celebrity ceremonies) generating an emotion-symbol pair. The content can then be manipulated in the plot as different symbols are put in play, essentially speaking a symbolic language specific to the film (racetrack to watching girls dance to getting danced around on stage) that the viewer translates back into the universal emotional language (I’m bored, and then bored more, and I continue to be bored).

Strategies of setting mood not only include the auteur’s selections of what particular emotional responses to edit into the movie, but also entail the color choices, the music, and most interestingly (for a discussion entailing mirror neurons) the motions of the camera. In the study of narratives, it is of notice that readers are continuously trying to guess the identity of the author who is guiding the reader (Fludernik 70). This insinuates that the reconstructive tendency we employ with visible characters, where we experience their reactions via mirror neurons to recover the stimulus that caused that reaction, (he feels disgusted, I feel disgusted, what did he smell? – or he feels bored, I feel bored, what interesting thing is absent?) also occurs with actors we do not see, like the narrator. Instead, we identify with the camera (Plantinga 458), and particularly the motions and orientation of the camera (Freedberg and Gallese 202), assuming it to be the identity of the film’s silent and invisible narrator. It has been demonstrated that, via mirror neurons, areas of the brain that activate when writing a familiar letter of the alphabet (or even an abstract symbol) also activate when an already written alphabet character is presented (and activate weakly when the abstract symbol is presented) (Longcamp et al. 1807). “This evidence shows that our brains can reconstruct actions by merely observing the static graphic outcome of an agent’s past action,“ and if the human brain can reverse engineer the movement behind a mark, then it is reasonable to extend this idea to camera’s gestures in that the viewer sees in real time.

            Some of these movements have already been mentioned, such as the total lack of movement signifying disinterest at the race track. In combination with the deciphering of Johnny’s emotions, the viewer invariably connects these emotions to the attitude of the auteur, which is, for example, distilled from the camera motions. Each empathetic response influences the next, generating a

mood [which] is always related to narrative point of view and character, […] [and] often narrative and character point of view are united, as the film’s narration will express an overarching mood to give us a sense of the protagonist’s experience(Plantinga 472).

By interweaving the empathetic contagion that Johnny’s behavior provides with the uninvolved attitude that the camera insinuates, the film creates a mood that iteratively orients the viewer to experience the next emotion, since we expect “mood [to] affect susceptibility to emotional contagion” (Hatfield, Cacioppo and Rapson 150). It is for this reason that Somewhere needs to be so repetitively boring: the film needs to genuinely coerce its audience into the same mindset (that is the same frame of expectation and desire) for the ending of the film to have any substantial meaning. The entirety of the film functions as a preparation for the viewer’s interpretation of its ending. And since Johnny’s perspective cannot be adequately and convincingly instilled in the viewer with a simple paraphrase of the film’s plot, the film needs to repeatedly create an experience of boredom that acclimates the viewer to Johnny’s state of mind. It is only after the viewer thoroughly learns the emotional landscape of Johnny’s world, from iteratively being focused on it through Johnny’s perception, that the actions on the screen have any emotional weight with which to impact the viewer.

To verify if this technique is put into play, I return to the opening scene of Somewhere. This is a great film for such an analysis since, as mentioned earlier, the subjectivity of the hero of Somewhere, Johnny Marco, is innately a very foreign subjectivity for the majority of audiences to equilibrate to. Johnny is a bored celebrity who is tired of the ease of his life. Obviously, this is not representative of a typical subjectivity. Though the first scene could be described as thrilling, and a life goal of many men (driving a Ferrari aggressively around a track), this kind of value judgment[42] is made impossible to the audience because of the film’s stylistic choices, i.e. the way the story is told.

In the opening scene, the camera, and in effect the viewer, is not with the action. The camera is not in the driver’s seat, or even the passenger’s seat; it does not move with the action at all, but is instead placed at a distance from the track that Marco races on.[43] If the camera had indeed been placed with the action, and had swerved around the track quickly, it would have worked against visualizing Marco’s perception (of which we may guess when first seeing his tiresome facial expression when exiting his car). The view is instead made purposefully uninteresting. The camera does not only provide an overly narrow field of view, but it does not rotate or pan around the scene to enlarge its frame, and the car is allowed to come in and out of the audience’s passive stare. It is as if the viewer’s perspective is so uninteresting, that she does not bother to move her head or eyes around the scene or to follow the car. This perspective sets the expectation for the viewer. An exciting event is presented as distant, boring, and irrelevant to the viewer. The racing car is treated as a backdrop as if the focus of the scene is not even meant to be directed at the only moving object in the scene (Marco in his car). The focus of the scene is instead to eliminate any possible excitement that could overcome a viewer that had come into the theater, wishing that he had driven an exotic car to the theater with. No view, but Johnny Marco’s view of the world is possible. Johnny Marco’s subjectivity colors (most of all) the initial scenes of Somewhere in order to quickly assimilate the viewer to the target subjectivity.

A similar perspective pervades the rest of the film: most of the time that Johnny watches strippers perform in his room, the viewer just sees Johnny’s sleepy expression while the artificial Muzak plays from tiny speakers stultify the amateur looking routine. The presentation of the scene makes it impossible to enjoy the carnal pleasures associated with strippers, not only are they on screen for less time than Johnny’s mildly diverted looking expression, but when the camera cuts to them, the audience is distanced from them by the way their routine is presented as artificial role play. Their highly thematic costumes (that clearly caricature useful clothing and cannot be deemed as realistic clothing) stress that their presence is a performance of a role of sexuality. Their first appearance in fact, as nurses, also suggest the fact that they are impersonations of medicinal relief for Johnny’s ennui (which, clearly from his expression, is not very effective). The inauthentic performance contains improvised choreography to playful music, so even when the camera does shift to the dancers, their role of playing and pretending sexuality is at the forefront. The perspective of this scene introduces sexual closeness with women as a slightly entertaining distraction, as a way to kill time rather than finding a good use of time. This is also a perspective which leads to Johnny falling asleep near the culmination of the dancer’s routine.

This theme spills over to another scene when Johnny asks his driver to stop by his lover’s house, and we see what we might expect to be the start if a passionate physical scene, but from the car on the street, looking through a window that reveals two joined bodies in the distance. The camera could have moved with Johnny into the apartment, and captured the unique features of the woman’s face, but instead we only ever see the back of her peroxide blond hair, and not up close at all. There is no sound during the encounter, no name to attribute to the woman or any excited voice or any heavy breathing to hear. We hope that this encounter, which shifts to a room totally out of sight, goes better than a previous one with a woman at a party, where the camera was brought along with Johnny into the bedroom to show him falling asleep.

Perhaps the best display and perspective of un-involvement with the world comes when Johnny accepts the potentially prestigious Golden Gatto (cat) in Italy during a ceremony in the likeness of the Oscars. We see him nonchalantly confused from the audience’s perspective, not comprehending what anyone is (supposedly glamorously) saying or doing on stage, or for that matter, why they are doing it. Even when the camera switches to a stage view looking down at his daughter in the audience (who Johnny continuously shares a smile with), it is an intimate angle that shows her surrounded by several other audience members, not at all accentuating a huge audience that would normally be present for this big-deal awards ceremony.

            This is all to say we do not centrally imagine our conception of what it would be like for us to be Johnny, in order to understand Johnny’s outlook on the world. To understand the perspective of a bored celebrity, a typical viewer cannot be directly shown the experience of fame from a simple POV of the bored celebrity. When someone has never raced a car more expensive than a house around a track, or leisurely watched erotic dancers in the comfort of their hotel room’s bed, or been honored with backup dancers and a trophy at an award’s ceremony, the path to understanding these experiences has to rely on absorbing the emotional value that Johnny himself places on these occurrences. To understand the perspective of someone who doesn’t enjoy any of these things, a viewer must be empathetically and sympathetically guided to reconstruct the perspective of another mind. The empathetically central emotions that the film stimulates are interwoven into a cognitive narrative that orients the viewer to be sympathetic. The viewer must roughly know Johnny’s mind through the emotions he displays, before the viewer can assemble Johnny’s outlook and discern what he desires, and sympathetically desire Johnny’s desires to be met.

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[1] Working under the principle that “any representational medium can be a form of narrative” (Gottschall and Wilson 181-182).

[2] More precisely endorphins diminish pain that may accompany survivalist macho behaviors including: exercise, eating spicy foods, and having sex.

[3] There is an interesting split coming into view already: Normally, the brain interprets the body and decides that it needs an endorphin, so it releases one. For first-time drug users however, a low-level of the brain, which surveys the body, knows that no endorphin is needed for the body, but a separate high-level of the brain, which cannot force the low-level to release an endorphin, instead commands the body to move itself to acquire and inject a substitute drug (because only it interprets the drug to be necessary). Later, a physiological dependence will develop, and the low-level will too interpret a need for the drug, It will be unable to fill that need, but it will be able cooperate with the high-level to move the body and inject the drug once more.

[4] The evolutionary logic behind the development of ToM and its uniqueness to humans will be discussed later.

[5] When ToM works with a text, it is not making (according to Holland) its primary product (a prediction of the external). Instead, the product of applying ToM to literature (simulating personal fulfillment) is a secondary phenomenon. For this reason, Holland separates the ToM mechanism from its literary application (332-333), and states that the evolutionary rationales for the origins of ToM (according to its primary uses) do not apply to its secondary functions of reading literature. Holland thus reaches the conclusion that the ability to enjoy literature is not evolutionarily inherited, or advantageous.

[6] This reward is enhanced survival, since humans live social lives, it is clearly imperative for a us to predict the behaviors of other people in our environment, and to plan our own behavior in a way that avoids unstable and hostile people and welcomes friendly and reliable people.

[7] Attended Harvard in the Fall of 1989 (new yorker), Cite mention from Lipsky, and the Music guy here. And Lorin Stein. But also probably say they had similar origins, which is obsessions with Wittgenstein’s solipsism impasse.

[8] of between being stuck within the static confines of your own person, versus leaping over the wall of self (Moody et al.) to connect with others.

[9] “In fact inside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all.”

[10] Most of the book is about Hal’s willingness yet inability to communicate… intro college admissions scene…

[11] “He despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 694-695). And after all, ”are not the very most natural things in life often the most terrifying?” (Wallace "Order and Flux in Northampton").

[12] Or rather, “because of,” since “that, as we have seen, would only perpetuate the philosophical sceptic’s fantasy of overcoming separateness” and lock him into his stalemate more tightly (Kalar 68).

[13] Wordplay discussions could start where “himself” could mean Hal’s father, though he has certainly met him. In this case I mean Hal’s own real self. This is also reminiscent of the

[14] After Himself’s death, his “wraith” confesses this.

[15] Himself continuously remade two particular films over his career, one was “Infinite Jest” and the other was “Cage” (both were made five times). Both seem to address situations where inter-human communication is impossible (Cage II is about a prison cell containing two convicts: one a blind man, the other deaf-mute) (2888 ebook n24).

[16] A veiled woman saying “at least twenty minutes of permutations of ‘I’m sorry’” while the camera’s “point of view was from [a] crib,” with “a ball-and-socket joint behind the mount that made the lens wobble” in order “to reproduce an infantile visual field” (2743ebook). This is (somehow) related to when “Death says [to Gately that] the woman who either knowingly or involuntarily kills you is always someone you love, and she’s always your next life’s mother. This is why Moms are so obsessively loving, […] [because they’re] trying to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember” (2483ebook) also (Boswell 127, 131).

[17] Whether this means Hal was a misbirth, not corporally but spiritually, is not certain. Though this would thematically fit in with the other birth oddity characters: Gately’s huge head, the crack addict’s stillbirth that she pretended was alive, Mario, Marathe’s wife born without a skull…(Not to mention the mutations (feral babies and giant hamsters?) caused by the Great Concavity)

[18] Boswell cites “Westward” as the confident preface to Infinite Jest (102).

[19] Winerman, Lea. "The Mind's Mirror." Monitor on Psychology 36.9 (2005): 48-49. Print.

[20] Which was summarized as the experience of a particular bodily state in response to certain environmental cues (in order to promote dynamic self-adjustment to heighten the chance of survival in non-static situations).

[21] Many more experiments are described in: Iacoboni, Marco. Mirroring People : The New Science of How We Connect with Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.

[22] Vittorio Gallese, a colleague and coauthor of Rizzolati

[23] The requirement being, however, that we find the person we are facing as someone like ourselves when they perform a familiar action or expression, and we instantly take on a mental state equivalent to theirs.

[24] Hailing from Philosopher Noël Carroll’s own discussions on film theory

[25] A favorite term of Susan Keen in: Keen, Suzanne. "A Theory of Narrative Empathy." Narrative 14.3 (2006): 207-236. Print.


[26] It is likely that the innate activity of mirror neurons (most apparently seen in the capacity for neonatal humans and macaques to imitate facial expressions right out of the womb (Ferrari et al.)) is the source from which all learned behaviors are derived from.

[27] i.e. geared towards an end, goal seeking.

[28] In other words, to proliferate itself.

[29] The word “result” is used instead of “representation” to emphasize that the images in the brain are signals produced by chemical processes in the internal milieu, instead of some phenomenon of interpretation.

[30] That is, survival of a complex organism.

[31] The core self is a very exciting concept because it bridges the newer abstract discussions of the mind with the familiar Darwinian thought of “descent with modification!”

[32] Specifically, the principle of evolution that over time, organisms specialize to their environment to have the greatest chance for winning the struggle to alone exploit their environmental niche.

[33] And the core self is itself a derivative of the proto self.

[34] where the outer parts of the brain are typically newer.

[35] Which is determined by examining the brains of evolutionarily older animals that are living today, but have branched off of humans’ line of development in the phylogenetic tree of life.

[36] This clarification is necessary to avoid turning neuroscience into a modern version of phrenology (LeDoux 74).

[37] A proposition for the origin of consciousness is indeed explained by Damasio (starting on 172) by forming and elaborating a derivative self from the core self.

[38] from its dependence on the body’s instantaneous relation to the environment.

[39] The term “world” is used to substitute the word “environment” and to help avoid conflating the virtual world of the film with the real environment of life.

[40] Where the viewers farther back are elevated with respect to the viewers farther in front

[41] This is a very important concept that will be discussed later in detail. Histories and residues of emotional states lead to moods.

[42] The origin of this value judgment clearly relies on the integration of personal experience and memory, although it is clear that it can be overcome by immediate emotional concerns (in the evolutionary model), additional reasons that this judgment disappears will be discussed in the future.

[43] An interesting tangent could be started at this point that this can also signify the initial disjoint between the expectations that Marco and his audience have for this event/his life, although the literal roles would be reversed, where Marco feels like he has a very uninteresting perspective and life, while the audience would expect Marco’s life to be very thrilling.

[i] So dangerously self-reflexive that it precludes an otherwise basic capability of his body: empathy (the root of all inter-mammalian emotional communication). It will jolt Hal out of the imprisoning hyper-self-consciousness that inhibits his self expression, and therefore his self realization.

[ii] But, just as easily as “Infinite Jest” could be the shot of adrenaline that gets Hal moving to de-atrophy, it can be “configured for a recursive loop,” engrossing and tying down its viewer like some ineluctable IV transfusion station (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 166.4ebook). Curiously, “Infinite Jest” shifts from anti- to pro-Holland when the un-sickly abuse the anhedonic anti-serum. It is important to remember the film’s intended and limited audience, i.e. those who haven’t yet “had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion”. The film may provide a light at the end of the tunnel for anhedonics who have been sheathed in gloom all their lives, by proving the possibility for human life to be effulgent, but the film is not necessary for normal people who already know how to desire something outside of themselves. The film would in fact have the opposite of the intended effect on hedonists: instead of injecting a person with hopeful gregarious impulses, the film would make them more reticent, willing to “die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving” (Wallace Infinite Jest : A Novel 318). Now, the addictive qualities of the film “Infinite Jest” start to echo Holland’s earlier comparisons of art with drugs. For a normal viewer, “Infinite Jest” is “a glorified daydream, a mild narcotic, or an illusion offering an escape from reality into fantasy” that Holland would prize (Holland Literature and the Brain 345). And unlike the demanding task of self-improvement it prompts Hal with, for healthy viewers, since “Infinite Jest” “cannot train [their] brains for life,” they “agree just to take pleasure in it” (Holland Literature and the Brain 342, 344).

The two antagonistic effects of “Infinite Jest” are the same as the two versions of art experience (that is, aesthetic experience) that are pit against one another in this essay. On the one hand, there is the original intention of “Infinite Jest:” to teach Hal an “important kind of freedom[, which] involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them. […] The alternative is unconsciousness” (Wallace and Kenyon) as a result of abusing “Infinite Jest,” which then “can’t help but render […] reality less attractive” than the fantasy it enables (Wallace "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" 188). In Holland’s words: “Infinite Jest” is both the “seeking” to inspire you to “seek,” and the “seeking” to end all “seeking.” And in my words: art can first destroy solipsism by revealing other people’s desires and the pleasures of those desires being met: If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with characters' pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside” (McCaffrey 127). Or art can imprison by immersing you in the pleasures of your own desires being met: “Art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art” (McCaffrey 130). (Also see Oatley’s definitions of escapist and writerly reading in Emotion and the Arts p280).


[iii] But since the information that it directly reads is unconsciously written, consciousness does not know the origin of the feelings it creates, it cannot predict the feelings it creates, and may overestimate the permanence of its feelings. Damasio writes that an organism’s feelings are its first products of a conscious mind (Damasio 173). The first feeling of “I” is not generated in isolation, and is not totally personal, but is dependent on the environment’s status. Following the evolutionary model of the brain, all further subjective conscious processing follows this quasi-personal source of an “I.” If the root of subjectivity is the status of the environment (something we have no jurisdiction over), then the “I” cannot be wholly self generated,[iii] and it becomes clear that all analyses of the “I” must start at the consideration of the environment, in relation to the living organism. The “I” of others, foreign subjectivities, can be deciphered by first examining their environment. And, two versions of “I,” i.e. two different subjectivities, may converge if they pass through the same environment for long enough.


 [A1]Makes it seem then that Hal’s repression was not at his own hand. He does not remember doing it…he was born repressed?

 [A2]The motherhood film is kind of the epitome of separateness. The mother who is saying sorry has