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Yet more visual illusions

We haven’t had any visual illusions on this blog for a while, and since the poster recently released for Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot Returns depends on a visual illusion this seems as good as time as any.

It’s surprising that more films do not choose to use visual illusions in their marketing materials, but some  nice examples based on Disney films by Rowan Stocks Moore can be found here. The Peter Pan and Snow White posters in particular stand out.

Archimedes Lab has many different illusions and oddities from Gianni Sarcone and Marie Waeber, which  you can access here. There is also a great selection of vintage illusions dating back 2500 years.

The finalists for this year’s Illusion of the Year contest can be found here, with attractive celebrities that turn ugly and a great interactive demonstration of the wagon wheel illusion. There is also an illusion inspired by the infamous twisting neck scene from The Exorcist which you can see below if you’re brave enough. The effect is much more eerie than anything you could do with CGI.

io9 has a dedicated illusions channel, which has lots of different examples of visual illusions and articles covering a range of issues including the art of anamorphic illusions and why our pupils contract when looking at illusions that are not bright lights.

This last example comes from the pages of Akiyoshi Kitaoka, and you can find details of his latest work here.

Finally, a good collection of illusions, including some of those listed above and in my other posts on this topic (here and here), can be found in New Scientist’s ‘Friday Illusion’ column.

Cognitive Film Theory: Bibliographical Update

Back in January, when I posted an bibliographical update of works published on cognitive film theory, I was asked if I would do an update of the larger bibliography of research in this area that appeared the year before. Six months later, I have finally done this, and the link below will take you to the new version as a pdf file:

Nick Redfern – CognitiveFilmTheoryBibliography2-04

This bibliography now contains 425 different items, which means that 70 new references (highlighted in red) have been added since the old version was put on-line. By ‘new’ I mean only that items did not appear in the earlier version, and though many of these are from as recent as 2010 some are much older. Again, this bibliography makes no claim to being exhaustive, but what is there should be accurate. (I’ve also tidied up a few things since the last version but these were very minor).

I haven’t included any references from 2011 becasue the year isn’t over yet, and you’ll just have to wait until next January for that update.

One area that I have also left to one side, but which could make a very large contribution to the bibliography is research on cognition that uses film clips to explore cognition but which is not related to film studies (i.e. the research doesn’t necessarily use commerical films). One area of considerable research using film in this way are studies of ‘affective style,’ and a handful of references with links to papers by Richard J Davidson are listed below as examples. I may decide at a later date to add such research to the bibliography, but for the time being it remains in limbo.

Davidson RJ 1994 Asymmetric brain function, affective style, and psychopathology: the role of early experience and plasticity, Development and Psychology 6: 741-758.

Davidson RJ 1998 Anterior electrophysiological asymmetries, emotion, and depression: conceptual and methodological conundrums, Psychophyisiology 35: 607-614.

Davidson RJ 2003 Darwin and the neural bases of emotion and affective style, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1000: 316-336.

Davidson RJ2004 Well-being and affective style: neural substrates and biobehavioural correlates, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 359 (1449): 1395-1411.

Memory and experience

This week some papers on memory and experience in the cinema from a cognitive perspective.

One of the interesting things to note is that if you search Google scholar using the terms “viewer memory cinema” you get a lot of references to books and articles on the status of film as memory and cinema as cultural memory; whereas if you search for “viewer memory advertising” the results returned focus on how people experience and remember adverts (and the obvious economic consequences of this). Insights from research into advertising can be useful to film studies, and if we take a step beyond film studies we can find a good deal of empirical research that looks at how people organise and remember their experience of films. This is especially the case when we look at the research on cinema advertising, where we find many studies of how audiences respond to and recall what they have seen on the screen, but which is largely absent from work on cognitive film theory.

As ever, the version linked to may not be the final published version.

An interesting paper recently published by Frontiers in Human Neuroscience looks at how viewer’s organise their experience of a film by segmenting it into meaningful events by measuring brain activity. This research harks back to work in the 1970s by Carroll and Bever on segmentation in narrative cinema (Carroll JM and Bever TG 1976 Segmentation in narrative cinema, Science 191 (4231): 1053-1055).

Zacks JM, Speer NK, Swallow KM, and Maley CJ (2010) The brain’s cutting-room floor: segmentation of narrative cinema, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4: 168. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00168.

Observers segment ongoing activity into meaningful events. Segmentation is a core component of perception that helps determine memory and guide planning. The current study tested the hypotheses that event segmentation is an automatic component of the perception of extended naturalistic activity, and that the identification of event boundaries in such activities results in part from processing changes in the perceived situation. Observers may identify boundaries between events as a result of processing changes in the observed situation. To test this hypothesis and study this potential mechanism, we measured brain activity while participants viewed an extended narrative film. Large transient responses were observed when the activity was segmented, and these responses were mediated by changes in the observed activity, including characters and their interactions, interactions with objects, spatial location, goals, and causes. These results support accounts that propose event segmentation is automatic and depends on processing meaningful changes in the perceived situation; they are the first to show such effects for extended naturalistic human activity.

Although not directly related to the cinema (though films are mentioned), this paper also provides evidence for the way in which veiwer’s segment scenes:

Kurby CA and Zacks JM 2008 Segmentation in the perception and memory of events, Trends in Cognitive Science 12: 729-79.

People make sense of continuous streams of observed behavior in part by segmenting them into events. Event segmentation seems to be an ongoing component of everyday perception. Events are segmented simultaneously at multiple timescales, and are grouped hierarchically. Activity in brain regions including the posterior temporal and parietal cortex and lateral frontal cortex increases transiently at event boundaries. The parsing of ongoing activity into events is related to the updating of working memory, to the contents of long-term memory, and to the learning of new procedures. Event segmentation might arise as a side effect of an adaptive mechanism that integrates information over the recent past to improve predictions about the near future.

Both these papers come from Jeff Zack’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University, St. Louis, MO., and his webpage can be accessed here.

This next piece seems almost quaint now, with its tales of students who did not own a CD in the late-1980s, but provides some evidence for the way in which a viewer understands adverts in different ways.

Mick DG 1992 Levels of subjective comprehension in advertising processing and their relations to ad perceptions, attitudes and memories, Journal of Consumer Research 18 (4): 411-424.

Two fundamental orientations toward message comprehension have appeared un advertising research: the traditional objective view, which applies to the accuracy criterion to conceptualize and evaluate comprehension, and the subjective view, which applies other criteria related to the individual comprehender and the actual experience of the message. This article develops a framework for four levels of subjective comprehension on the basis of an elaboration criterion. Comprehension levels are hypothesized to differ in the relations to ad perceptions, attitudes, and memory. Results from an empirical study provide initial support for the framework, including new theoretical insights and explanatory ability beyond the objective orientation. Discussion focuses on implication for advertising theory and consumer research.

Lang A, Zhou S,Schwartz N, Bolls, PD, and Potter, RF 2000 The effects of edits on arousal, attention, and memory for television messages: when an edit is an edit can an edit be too much?, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 44 (1): 94-109.

This study examines the effect of the rate of edits (camera changes in the same visual scene) on viewers’ arousal and memory. The rate of edits varied from slow to very fast. Results show that as the rate of edits increases physiological arousal, self-reported arousal, and memory increase. It is suggested that edits can increase attention to and encoding of television message content without significantly increasing the cognitive load of the message.

An interesting paper looking at cinema advertsing is this piece from Hong Kong Baptist University, which focussed on how different groups experienced and recalled cinema advertising and what factors (screen size, stereo sound, etc.) affected those experiences. It reveals some interesting results: in Hong Kong, women are more likely to enter a theatre before the advertising than men, and so advertising directed at this group is likely to be more effective. I know of no similar study in the UK or the US, but I’m sure some data will exist somewhere – and if it doesn’t, then it should and there is a PhD here for someone.

Prendergast G and Chan LW 2003 Cinema Advertising in Hong Kong, BRC Working Papers, School of Business, Hong Kong Baptist University.

Cinema advertising offers a relatively less cluttered environment for advertisers to present their message to a captive audience. However, little is known about its effectiveness, especially in countries such as Hong Kong (a country that is relatively underdeveloped in terms of cinema adspend statistics). Building on the work of Ewing, Du Plessis and Foster (2001) and Dunnett and Hoek (1996), insights into perceptions of cinema advertising in Hong Kong were obtained from a survey of 150 interviewees. Different from previous studies which utilized dela yed recall, this study interviewed audience members immediately after they had viewed a particular movie. Results showed that cinema advertising exposure and recall rates were significantly related to various demographic variables, especially gender and age. Furthermore, the level of recall was found to be correlated with various situational stimuli in the cinema, such as the larger than life screen, Dolby stereo sound, the silent environment, comfortable seats, and audience members’ expectations to focus on the screen. Based on these findings, recommendations for cinema managers and advertisers are made.

One the major criticisms abelled at the recent Bond movies is that they are so stuffed with product placement that they often appear to be little more than glorified adverts. Recently, television programmes in the UK were given the go ahead to include more product placement as a way of increasing advertising revenues. Clearly, then it would be useful to ave some research int he effectvieness of product placement in films -and we have this research:

Bressoud E, Lehu, J-M, and Russel CA 2008 Integrating placement and audience characteristics to assess the recall of product placements in film: findings from a field study, 7th International Conference on Research in Advertising (ICORIA), 27-28 June 2008, Antwerp, Belgium.

This research incorporates into a single model characteristics of product placements in films and characteristics of the consumers and their viewing environment to assess the memorability of the placements. Eleven movies containing a total of 98 placements of varied characteristics were coded. 3,532 individuals who viewed a DVD rental of one of these movies at home completed a questionnaire on the following day. The questionnaire included audience viewing characteristics as well as a free recall measure of placements. The results reveal important insights into the variables thataffect, positively or negatively, the day after recall of products placed in movies.

Visual illusions for film studies

This post contains a number of link to various web sites devoted to visual illusions and some papers on visual illusions that are of interest film researchers. (NB: the papers linked to may not be the final published versions).

Possibly the best site devoted to illusions is Michael Bach’s 87 Optical Illusions and Visual Phenomena, which has an impressive array of very nicely presented illusions. As a researcher on visual perception, Bach has published many papers on how we experience the world including Bach M, Poloschek CM (2006) Optical Illusions, Advances in Clinical Neuroscience and Rehabilitation 6 (2): 20–21, which  provides a short general overview.

George Mather is a researcher at the University of Sussex, who has developed the two-stroke apparent motion illusion, and published on this topic: Mather, G (2006) Two-stroke: a new illusion of visual motion based on the time course of neural responses in the human visual system, Vision Research 46: 2015-2018; and Mather G, Challinor KL (2009) Psychophysical properties of two-stroke apparent motion, Journal of Vision 9 (1): 28.

Other papers on similar illusions are Conway BR, Kitaoka A, Yazdanbakhsh A, Pack CC, Livingstone MS (2005) Neural basis for a powerful static motion illusion, The Journal of Neuroscience 25 (23): 5651-5656; and

Mather’s two-stroke illusion won second place at the ‘Illusion of the Year’ contest in 2005. For information on the other visual illusions, the contest’s web site is here.

Another good site is at the University Of Massachusetts Psychology Department and is maintained by David T. Landrigan.

The wagon-wheel illusion in particular is of interest to film researchers as it raises the question of why we experience motion. (The wagon wheel illusion demonstration at Bach’s website is particularly good). Short-range apparent motion is the traditional explanation for the experience of motion in the cinema:

The illusion of continuous motion is called apparent motion to distinguish it from ‘real’ motion, which is perceived when an object moves continuously across a viewer’s visual field. When Sir Laurence Olivier appears to be fencing in a film, he is in apparent motion, whereas a person walking across the theatre in front the screen is in real motion (Ramachandran & Anstis 1986: 102).

Ramachandran and Anstis’s argument is based on an ontological distinction between ‘real’ motion and ‘apparent’ motion, and that there is a one-to-one correspondence between stimulus and experience. Thus a continuous stimulus results in the experience of ‘real’ motion, while a discrete stimulus results in ‘apparent motion’ (Ramachandran ,V.S., and Anstis, S.M. (1986) The perception of apparent motion, Scientific American 254 (6): 102-109.) But what if our perception is discrete, so that we experience the world as a sequence of snapshots? The one-to-one correspondence between stimulus and experience implied by the ‘real’/’apparent’ distinction is not relevant if all our percepts are discrete, and the ontology of the stimulus (continuous/discrete) is irrelevant to our experience. In simple terms, all our perceptions would be discrete irrespective of the nature of the stimulus, and there would be no difference between watching Olivier on film or someone walking in front of the screen. The viewer would experience motion in the cinema because he experiences motion. This problem is raised in the following papers, most of which cite the cinema as a direct example of discrete perception:

Andrews T, Purves D (2005) The wagon-wheel illusion in continuous light, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9 (6): 261-263.

Purves D, Paydarfar JA, Andrews TJ (1996) The wagon wheel illusion in movies and reality, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 93 (8): 3693-3697.

van Rullen R, Koch C (2003) Is perception discrete or continuous?, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7 (5): 207-213.

van Rullen R, Reddy L, Koch C (2005) Attention-driven discrete sampling of motion perception, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102 (14): 5291-5296.

van Rullen R, Reddy L, Koch C (2006) The continuous wagon wheel illusion is associated with changes in electroencephalogram power at ~13 Hz, The Journal of Neuroscience 26 (2): 502-507.

Van Rullen R, Pascual-Leone A, Batelli L (2008) The continuous wagon wheel illusion and the ‘when’ pathway of the right parietal lobe: a repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation study, Public Library of Science One 3 (8): e2911.

A challenge to the argument for discrete perception argument in the wagon wheel illusion can be found in Klein K, Holcombe AO, Eagleman DM (2004) Illusory motion reversal is caused by rivalry, not by perceptual snapshots of the visual field, Vision Research 44: 2653-2658; and Klein K, Eagleman DM (2008) Evidence against the temporal subsampling account of illusory motion reversal, Journal of Vision 8 (4): 13.

Yves Gallifret deals with the history of retinal persistence and cinema in an English language essay from Comptes Rendues Biologies: Gallifret Y (2006) Visual persistence and cinema?, Compte Rendues Biologies 329 (5-6): 369-385.

An article on a similar subject is Paul St. George’s piece on chronophotography: St. George, P (2009) Using chronophotography to replace Persistence of Vision as a theory for explaining how animation and cinema produce the illusion of continuous motion, Animation Studies 4: 17-26.

Cognitive film theory: a bibliography

This weeks post is a bibliography of materials on the subject of cognitive film theory I have amassed on and off over the past few years. Although it contains some 355 items it is neither exhaustive nor up to date, although it should be accurate (barring any changes in the URLs for web-based resources). I’m sure most of what is there is well-known to those interested in this area, but there is almost certainly something you will not have come across before.

The file can be downloaded here as a pdf: Nick Redfern – CognitiveFilmTheoryBibliography1-19.

Finally, to bring to your attention an interesting article I came across recently on the subject of Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini in Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience and their series on the impact of neurological disorders on famous artists, which looks at the impact of strokes on the creativity of two of Italy’s greatest filmmakers.

Dieguez, S., Assal, G., Bogousslavsky, J. (2007) Visconti and Fellini: from left social neorealism to right-hemisphere stroke, Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience 22: 44-74.

The acclaimed Italian directors Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini had very different life trajectories that led them to become major figures in the history of cinema. Similarities, however, can be found in their debuts with the neorealist genre, their personalities, creative styles and politicocultural involvement, and ultimately in the neurological disease that struck them at the end of their careers. Both suffered a right-hemispheric stroke that left them hemiplegic on the left side. We review their life and career to put that event into perspective, and then discuss its aftermath for both artists in the light of our current knowledge of right-hemispheric functions. Visconti showed a tremendous resilience following the accident and managed to direct several films and plays as an infirm, whereas Fellini had to put an end to his career but still was able to display his talents to the neuropsychologists that treated him. A speculative account is given of the links between right-hemispheric symptomatology and the premorbid personality of these highly prolific patients.

PMID: 17495505

Information transduction in the cinema

A version of this post was presented to the CCM Research group at the University of Central Lancashire on 21 February 2007. It is presented here with the first part – a (not entirely satisfactory) discussion of ecological approaches to film theory – missing, and a new introduction. The model in figure 1 now seems incomplete and needs further development, but I think it still has some uses as a basic description of information and perception in the cinema.

Wade and Swanston point out that in order to come to a full understanding of vision it is necessary to ‘include an appreciation of the neurophysical processes that are initiated by the activity of light on the receptors of the eye. These involve the modification of light energy into nerve impulses and their transmission to areas at the back of the brain where they are analysed’ (1991: 59). In my opinion, it is precisely this ‘appreciation of neurophysical processes’ that should form the basis of film theory – not least because we need to be able to account for own experiences of the cinema in formulating hypotheses about it. A cognitive approach to film theory allows theorists to build self-reflexivity into their research. The Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image promotes research in this area, with a particular emphasis on viewer’s emotional experiences. David Bordwell has recently written on the latest research to emerge here and  here.

However, I have been repeatedly frustrated by the lack of a model of communication in the cinema that can account for the viewer’s perception of a film in terms of neurophysical processes. For example, Carl Plantinga (1999) has noted that ‘[o]ne of the least explored aspects of film and television is their sensory means of communication’ (239) – but then on the next page he asserts that ‘[c]learly, film directors use the human face to communicate information about the emotions of characters’ (240, original emphasis). These are the only two occasions Plantinga mentions communication – but he goes from a topic that is one of the ‘least explored’ to the self-evident clarity of the assertion that films communicate emotions to the viewer. Plantinga never defines what he means by communication or information, though we may infer that he means the transmission from screen to spectator of meaningful content about the emotional states of a particular character. However, as Thayer has pointed out, such communication is impossible:

The ways in which we traditionally conceive of communication – those being inadequate and untenable – stand as obstacles to more adequate and more potent ways of conceiving of communication … Those preconceptions, our traditional concepts of communication, are often insidious. ‘Communication is the “transfer of meaning”’ has an appealing ring to it. But since none of our receptors is capable of receiving ‘meaning,’ the notion of transfer is a flagrantly untenable one (Thayer 1979: 10).

The work of Paul Bach-y-Rita (2002, 2003) at the University of Wisconsin deserves special mention here. Bach-y-Rita and his fellow researchers have used televisual sensory substitution systems to restore the modality of sight to vision impaired individuals, and he has addressed the impact of restored sight and emotion content:

we found that while experienced blind TVSS subjects could perceive faces and printed images, they were very disappointed when perception was not accompanied by qualia: A Playboy centerfold carried no emotional message, and the face of a girl-friend or a wife created an unpleasant response since it did not convey an affective message. We consider this to be comparable to the lack of emotional contact of curse-words in a language that has been learned as an adult. It is possible that the emotional content could be developed over a long period of usage. On the other hand, a blind infant using a vision substitution system smiles when he recognizes a toy and reaches for it, and a blind 10-year-old child perceiving a flickering candle flame by means of a TVSS is enchanted (Bach-y-Rita et al. 2003: 293).

This quote is very suggestive for cognitive film theorists working in the area of emotion. It raises a fundamental question: what is the nature of communication in the cinema? This paper explores this question through looking at information and the different forms it takes in the viewer’s experience of a motion picture.

Information in the cinema

Francis Crick points out that there ‘is one fact about the brain that is so obvious it is seldom mentioned: it is attached to the rest of the body and communicates with it. The nervous system receives information only from the various transducers in the body’ (1994: 81). This principle has long history and may be traced back to Johannes Müller’s law of specific nerve energies, which states that it no matter how a sensory system is stimulated, the resulting sensation will always be of the type appropriate to that system (Müller 1826). For example, the stimulation of the optic nerve will result in visual sensation regardless of whether that stimulation is by flashing light, by electric shock, or by pressure on the eye (Norrsell et al. 1999); and this sensation is dependent upon the part of the brain in which the sensory pathways terminate and not the stimulus. Thus we ‘see with the brain, not the eyes’ (Bach-y-Rita et al. 2003: 285) as the images that pass through the pupil and are focussed on the retina go no further: ‘The sole source of output from the retina to the rest of the brain is the action potentials arising from the million or so ganglion cells’ (Bear et al. 2007: 300). The brain has no independent reference as to the cause of electro-chemical signals that are transmitted along the optic nerve because the ‘response of a nerve cell does not encode the physical nature of the agents that caused its response. Encoded is only “how much” at this point on my body, but not “what”’ (Foerster [1973] 2003: 214).

Images in the cinema are comprised of variable physical properties in the pattern of silver salts of the film’s emulsion (Enticknap 2005: 203), so that light projected through a film and reflected by a screen is energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation and is experienced by the viewer as changes in the intensity of light and colour, and its position in the frame (Read 1998: 1). This light carries no qualitative information about the environment – there is only quantitative data about the energetic properties of the light. As Foerster points out ([1972] 1981: 263): ‘the environment contains no information, the environment is as it is.’ The viewer, as a perceiving system, is capable of receiving light as energy as evolution has led to the development of a visual system that responds to changes in the quantitative properties of a stream of photons (e.g. hue, luminosity) without knowledge of the cause of such properties. The viewer, then, is open to energy (‘how much’) but is closed to information (‘what’) (Ashby 1956).

As sensory systems function by ‘transducing some type of environmental energy into a form that can be analysed by the cells in the central nervous system’ (Wade and Swanston 1991: 59), perception cannot be considered direct – it is mediated by the sensory and neurophysiological processes of the perceiver. Those processes begin with light being focussed onto the retina:

Light emitted by or reflected off objects in space can be imaged by the eye onto the retina. Light energy is first converted into membrane potential charges in the mosaic of photoreceptors. … photoreceptor membrane potential is converted into a chemical signal (the neurotransmitter glutamate), which is again converted into a membrane potential changes in the post-synaptic bi-polar horizontal cells. This process of electrical-chemical-electrical signalling repeats again and again, until the presence of light or dark or colour is finally converted to a charge in the action potential firing frequency of the ganglion cells (Bear et al. 2007: 306).

The light energy reflected by a cinema screen enters the viewer’s eye where it is converted into a pattern of stimulation, and is projected to the magnocellular and parvocellular layers of the lateral geniculate nucleus before being relayed to the visual cortex (Farah 2000). As quantitative information, the pattern of stimulation at the retina is syntactic (Shannon and Weaver 1949), and is transduced into the functional information by the firing of neurons in the visual cortex. There is a non-random correlation between these two types of information (Gulick [1980] 1990).

A perceiving system is not aware of this complex process of information transduction, only of the results of this process (Jackendoff 1987). Somehow – and this remains a mystery to philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists – a perceiver is conscious of these results and they are meaningful. The semantic information that is the content of consciousness is an emergent product of the mind, and cannot be reduced to syntactic relations: information only becomes meaningful when a perceiver is able to link it to information structures he or she already possesses (Stonier 1997). Such information, then, is highly context-dependent, and from this it must be concluded that the environment does not contain sufficient information to guide a perceiver’s behaviour. The question of meaning comes down to how a perceiving system generates units of experience and relates them to conceptual structures that from the basis for subsequent modes of acting and thinking (Redfern 2004). As semantic information cannot be distinguished from those modes it becomes pragmatic information when it is embedded in a social practice (Zoglauer 1996).

The transduction of light energy to syntactic to functional to semantic/pragmatic information creates a layered hierarchy of information levels in which higher information concepts depend on lower level information concepts but cannot be reduced to them (Zoglauer 1996). This relationship is represented in Figure 1. Though we are conscious only of information at the semantic/pragmatic level of this hierarchy it is essential that we include the lower information levels and do not marginalise the physical inputs to the viewer as a perceiving system or ignore the viewer’s neurophysiological processes of information transduction.


Figure 1 Information transduction in motion picture perception

Representation in the cinema

The concept of representation is central to both cognitive psychology and to the study of all media forms as well as more specifically the cinema. Representation is a term used in a wide variety of senses and can refer to any symbolic description of the world. Thus, from a psychological perspective, representation refers to mental images that correspond to objects that lie beyond a perceiver’s sensory systems; while in film studies, representation is used in reference to the reflection or distortion of the ‘real’ (Dyer 1985). Both these uses of representation are manifest in the application of cognitive models to the cinema: in watching, say, The Scarlet Pimpernel (Harold Young, 1934) the viewer has a mental image of the depiction of the Pimpernel as an English gentleman adventurer (Richards 1997) (see Figure 2).

If the above description of information transduction in motion picture perception is accepted then the concept of representation is of no use in accounting for the viewer’s experience of a film. As the viewer is, in informational terms, organisationally closed his or her conscious experience cannot be said to correspond to anything that exists independently of the viewer. As an organisationally closed system that interacts necessarily with its own states, the viewer has no external point of reference by which to judge the correspondence of mental images to the world: the viewer has no means of establishing a correspondence between his or her perception of The Scarlet Pimpernel and the film itself. If it is accepted that the viewer is organisationally closed then the sensory structure, patterns, or images he or she experiences are the viewer’s own construction, and the notion that they represent an aspect of the world has no empirical foundation. Glasersfeld (1995, 1999) argues that in the place of representation, we should use the term presentation, as this is closer to Kant’s deployment of vorstellung in ‘The Conflict of the Faculties,’ to refer to concepts that are generated by a perceiver: ‘the mind can only create only presentations of its own objects and not of the real things, that is, through these presentations and concepts, things cannot possibly be known as they might be in themselves’ (quoted in Glasersfeld 1995: 39-40). The qualitative aspects of the viewer’s experience are solely determined by the viewer, and his or her experience of The Scarlet Pimpernel is a mental presentation of the viewer that emerges as a result of a complex process of information transduction.


Figure 2 Leslie Howard as The Scarlett Pimpernel (1934)

The concept of constructions that do not correspond to an external reality does not imply epistemological solipsism. Lorenz (1941) argued that evolution has provided us with a perceptual system that allows us to operate in the absence of information about the ‘real world.’ This principle has been developed by evolutionary epistemologists (Campbell 1974) and radical constructivists (Glasersfeld 1995), who argue that constructions are adaptations that provide us with viable ways of thinking and acting in an environment (Sjölander 1999). This principle of adaptation is derived from the work of Jean Piaget (1937), who approached the construction of knowledge as a biologist. For Piaget, adaptation involves two complimentary and simultaneous processes: a cognising organism primarily seeks to organise experience in terms of the psychological structures (schemes) it already possesses, i.e., it seeks to assimilate experience; if the result of this process creates a perturbation the organism attempts to accommodate the error either by modifying an existing scheme or creating a new one. It is this balance between assimilation and accommodation that Piaget describes as adaptation. Knowledge is actively constructed, and is adapted to fit the environmental constraints that act on an organism in order to avoid internal contradictions and achieve equilibrium. Glasersfeld describes the principle of adaptation in radical constructivist thought:

[A]daptation is not an activity but the result of the elimination of all that is not adapted. Consequently, on the biological level, anything that manages to survive is ‘adapted’ to the environment in which it happens to find itself living.… Taken out of the biological context and applied to cognition, this means that ‘to know’ is not to possess true representations of reality, but rather to possess ways and means of acting and thinking that will allow one to attain the goals one happens to have chosen (2001: 39).

The key to evaluating competing knowledge claims, therefore, is not to seek to compare them to the ‘real world’ that cannot be known, but to assess their cognitive viability or functional fitness.

In observing a film, the viewer abstracts regularities from his or her conscious experience and seeks to fit those regularities into pre-existing information structures. In watching The Scarlet Pimpernel, the viewer identifies regularities in their experience of watching a film and links this semantic information to what he or she already knows about ‘Englishness’ and ‘gentlemanly behaviour.’ A viewer who has no understanding of these concepts will be unable to establish such connections, and as a consequence will interpret the film very differently. Perception is, to a significant extent, dependent upon the viewer’s prior experiences and knowledge, and is comprised of a sense-making activity that involves the building up of conceptual structures by linking new information to old. The result of this process cannot be regarded as being representational as the viewer has no means of accessing the film directly.


In adopting an evolutionary-constructivist approach it is possible to develop a model of information transduction in motion picture perception that is non-representational, ecologically viable, and takes as its starting point the viewer as a biological perceiving system. This approach leads to the conclusion that perception is not direct, and the highly detailed, coherent world that such a viewer experiences is an autopoietic construct of the viewer (Maturana and Varela 1980). The ‘impression of reality’ in the cinema may be accounted for as the viewer’s construction of his or her own experiential reality. The viewer does not pickup information from a film because, to paraphrase Foerster, the film contains no information; the film is as it is.


Ashby, W.R. (1956) An Introduction to Cybernetics. London: Chapman and Hall.

Bach-y-Rita, P. (2002) Sensory substitution and qualia, in A. Noe and E. Thompson (eds.) Vision and Mind: Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 497-514.

Bach-y-Rita, P., M.E. Tyler, and K.A. Kaczmarek (2003) Seeing with the brain, International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 15 (2): 285-295.

Bear, M.F., B.W. Connors, and M.A. Paradiso (2007) Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, third edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams, and Williams.

Campbell, D.T. (1974) Evolutionary epistemology, in P.A Schilpp (ed.) The Philosophy of Karl R. Popper. LaSalle, IL: Open Court: 412-463.

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