Quotes from legendary film theorist David Bordwell – on emotion and evolution – from the chapter What Snakes, Eagles and Rhesus Macaques Can Teach Us in Evolution, Literature, Film: A Reader (2010). Also: quotes from Arthur Koestler, and Ian David on emotion in film.

Also: quotes from Arthur Koestler, and Ian David on emotion in film.

David Bordwell writes:

`Doubtless neurological research will eventually show that any experiential process involves complicated feedback and input-output among many mental systems.

Take mirror neurons, which can be found in various areas of the brain. Watching someone lift a heavy weight, either in front of you or on a movie screen, stimulates some of the neurons that would fire if you lifted a weight yourself.

Many of these mirror neurons are linked to intentional action on your part, so that when they fire, you can spontaneously understand the actions of others as products of their intentions.

It seems that we have a powerful, dedicated system moving from swiftly the perception of action to empathetic mind-reading (Ramachandran).

This is only one instance of how contemporary research asks us to consider that many of what we take to be learned or culturally guided mental activities will turn out to be packed into our biological equipment.

Psychological research in the cognitive paradigm has steadily diminished claims for a blank-slate conception of the human mind and belief in the unlimited plasticity of human capacities.

More and more activities (e.g., language, recognition of emotional signals, and attribution of intentions) seem traceable to humans’ supersensitive natural endowment.’

(Bordwell in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 273)

Bordwell's model of perception in ELF: A Reader (2010) p 274

Bordwell’s schematic model of the spectator’s activities – in ELF: A Reader (2010) p 274 

`I suggest that we can characterize viewers’ interactions with films along a continuum of activities: perception, comprehension and appropriation

Sensory input drives perceptual processing; perceptual processing feeds into comprehension and appropriation, in the “bottom-up” direction.

Appropriation drives comprehension to some degree and perception to a lesser degree.

There are secondary feedback effects too, as when the manner of appropriation can recast perception or comprehension. For example, a decision to interpret the film a certain way can lead us to look more closely at the film and notice or comprehend aspects that might otherwise be missed.

I’d argue that such feedback systems can’t go all the way down or all the way up, because perception can’t in every respect determine appropriation, and appropriation can’t completely reshape perception or comprehension. Wishing that Thelma and Louise don’t die won’t make it so.

(Bordwell in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 274-5)

Here is a question: Why do so many of the protagonists die in the Top 20 RoI Films?

The Top 20 RoI Films - StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013)

The Top 20 RoI Films – StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013)

Bordwell then states:

`Not everyone has the same set of conceptual schemes. Again, poetics has a lot to contribute to understanding comprehension.

The technical choices made by filmmakers organize perception in ways designed to enhance comprehension. Filmmakers design their shots and scenes so that spectators can follow the movie’s large-scale form.

Focussing on certain traditions or particular films, we can study how principles of style, narrative and the like aim to provide a distinct experience for the viewer.

For instance, since the 1920s most films in most countries have organized their perceptual surface according to some basic principles. Commercial storytelling cinema has long followed the conventions of analytical editing: master shot, followed by a two shot or over-the-shoulder shots, followed by singles highlighting each participant in shot/reverse shot fashion.

In fact seldom do we find in any art a style with such pervasive presence and 100-year longevity. These norms have provided easy, comprehensible ways for narrative to be understood.’

(Bordwell in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 276)

And, Bordwell on emotion in film:

`I haven’t mentioned a prime component of film’s effects: emotions.

In my past work, the historical poetics I’ve proposed has slighted emotions, leading some people to think that a cognitive perspective can’t tackle such matters.

In part, leaving emotion out of the picture is a simple piecemeal idealization of the phenomenon; studying the grammar of a joke may not yield insights about what makes it funny.’

(Bordwell in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 280)

Interestingly, in the amazing 1964 work, The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler studied exactly that. i.e. What makes jokes funny?

And – the grammar isn’t (always) exactly the point, it’s the collision of two conceptual matrices. He called it bisociation. (It’s also the key to all combinatorial creativity.)

Koestler’s intersection of conceptual matrices (Koestler, 1989, p. 35)

Koestler’s intersection of conceptual matrices (Koestler, 1989, p. 35)

Koestler studied and analyzed 3 key things: humour, scientific discovery, and artistic creation in The Act Of Creation. They all work the same way. Example: Darwin combined anthropology and mathematics in arriving at the theory of Evolution. Gutenberg combined a wine press and a coin punch to get the printing press. (For many more examples of bisociation, i.e. combinatorial creativity, see this post: StoryAlity #9B – Creativity in Science (and – The Arts and Film))

Koestler also pointed this out:

Koestler’s tragic and comic tension (Koestler, 1989, p. 34)

Koestler’s tragic and comic tension (Koestler, 1989, p. 34)

Returning to Bordwell on emotion:

`Emotion is part of our evolutionary heritage, and it has largely served in tandem with cognition… The hominids who lingered to investigate whether the stripes glimpsed in the underbrush belonged to a predator didn’t leave as many offspring as those who, driven by fear, simply fled at first glimpse.

Emotions offer quick and dirty solutions to problems that make thinking risky.

Alternatively, so-called commitment emotions may have evolved to strengthen group bonds, even if they work against self-centred rationality…

Less apparent are the ways in which emotions function in perception.

A controversial case would be our startle response, which can be triggered quite automatically, as when you jump at a sudden burst of sound in a horror film. Startle isn’t a prime candidate for being an emotion – it seems to prepare the way for the emotion of surprise – but it does lead to physiological arousal of a sort that primes affect…

More common and central is our sensitivity to emotional signals sent by other humans. Just as the rhesus macaques recognize signs of distress in their mates in a movie, we are prepared to grasp many facial expressions…

A film’s soundtrack can arouse us quite directly by cries, bellows, and other signals, just as infants respond to the mother’s coos and baby talk…

More obvious are the emotions that fund comprehension. As we come to understand a narrative, we begin to run scenarios that require “emotional intelligence” – good guesses to how the characters will react to the story situations… Again, there may be considerable cross-cultural regularities in these emotions, most of which depend upon recurrent social situations that people in most cultures encounter – sympathy for children, anger at being wronged, and a sense of fairness or justice.’

(Bordwell in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 280-1)

In amongst examining about 30 other things, did a study on the emotional patterns in all of the top 20 RoI films – to see if there were any common patterns in emotion across them all.

The Top 20 RoI Films - StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013)

The Top 20 RoI Films – StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013)

In doing the study, used the 10 x emotions that Carroll, Gottschall, Johnson & Kruger used in their excellent Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning (2012).

Carroll, J, Gottschall, J, Johnson, JA & Kruger, DJ (2012), Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning, 1st Edn, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Here is an excerpt from that amazing book that (well, partly at least) explains, what they did, with using those 10 emotions, and why: (i.e. – this part doesn’t explain how they actually did the survey on emotional responses, etc. but it’s a good start)

`Emotional Responses – One of our chief working hypotheses is that when readers respond to characters in novels, they respond in much the same way, emotionally, as they respond to people in everyday life. They like or dislike them, admire them or despise them, fear them, feel sorry for them, or are
amused by them.

In writing fabricated accounts of human behavior, novelists select and organize their material for the purpose of generating such responses, and readers willingly cooperate with this purpose. They participate vicariously in the experiences depicted and form personal opinions about the qualities of the characters. Authors and readers thus collaborate in producing a simulated experience of emotionally responsive evaluative judgment. (13)

We sought to identify emotions that are universal and that are
thus likely to be grounded in universal, evolved features of human

The solution was to use Paul Ekman’s influential set of
seven basic or universal emotions: anger, fear, disgust, contempt, sadness, joy, and surprise. (14) These terms were adapted for the purpose
of registering graded responses specifically to persons or characters.
Four of the seven terms were used unaltered: anger, disgust, contempt,
and sadness. Fear was divided into two distinct items: fear of a character, and fear for a character. “Joy” or “enjoyment” was adapted both to make it idiomatically appropriate as a response to a person and also to have it register some distinct qualitative differences. Two terms, “liking” and “admiration,” served these purposes. “Surprise,” like “joy,” seems more appropriate as a descriptor for a response to a situation than as a descriptor for a response to a person or character.
Consequently, in place of the word “surprise,” we used the word
“amusement,” which combines the idea of surprise with an idea of
positive emotion.

One further term was included in the list of possible
emotional responses: indifference. Indifference is the flip side of
“interest,” the otherwise undifferentiated sense that something matters,
that it is important and worthy of attention.

(Carroll, Gottschall, Johnson, & Kruger 2012, p 47-48)

So – in other words, using Ekman’s list as a basis, they ended up with 10 x emotions:

  1. Fear-of the Character 
  2. Fear-for the Character
  3. Anger
  4. Contempt 
  5. Disgust 
  6. Indifference
  7. Sadness
  8. Liking 
  9. Admiration
  10. Amusement

And so – then I went through every scene in the top 20 RoI films, and I classified it, according to what the dominant emotion was in the scene.

(Yes – I know – film scenes have loads of emotions, and also – that’s just one guy, i.e. me – but – there were 2 reasons I did it. (1) After 20 years as a professional script assessor/story analyst, including for major film studios, I believe that I now know how to have the same emotional reactions as an imagined film audience. – This is in fact the whole principle of being a Script Analyst. And – also (2) I don’t currently have the resources or time to do a `massive empirical study’ on about 5,000 people, right now. So I did what I could, with the tools I had to hand, i.e. me. But – I certainly hope that some doctoral film student who comes after me will maybe consider doing that study, on emotion in the Top 20 RoI Films, on a wider scale. Seriously. Then again – if you do, you may want to adjust the `emotion categories’. It’s one thing to watch a film and then come away from it, and analyze your emotional responses, but a film – as does a novel – means you have `an emotional journey’ during the watching/experiencing of the thing.)

The RoI bell curve. High RoI Films are those that go viral. - It's not that hard.

The RoI bell curve. High RoI Films are those that go viral. – It’s not that hard.

Anyway – the point is, the study that I did on emotion patterns in the Top 20 RoI films actually revealed no common patterns in terms of `emotional sequencing’ for scenes. So – in a way – it was a complete waste of time. But – even a negative result, is a result.

Though – in another way, now I know that I’m (possibly, probably, maybe) not `missing something’ there.

The thing about emotion in films is this, for one thing:

Genre has a huge influence on the emotional landscape you’re likely to pass through, as a viewer. (Just to state the obvious.)

i.e.: A Horror (or even Terror) Genre Film is: probably not going to take you (the Audience) through the same sort of emotional territory over time as a Romantic Comedy, or say a Western, or a Gangster, or a Nostalgia, or a Sports Genre film.

Now – I suppose – I could look at all the 10 Horror Films in the Top 20 RoI list and see if they (those x 10 films) all follow the same emotional rhythm pattern…

But, actually, I already did that (i.e. compared the emotional patterns across the 10 Horror films) and – it wasn’t particularly inspiring at all, in terms of `revealed patterns’.

i.e. In my view there weren’t any worth reporting. (And – I am actually personally pretty good at pattern-recognition.) Now here is a picture of a girl and a guy madly in love (or lust – or whatever), just to cheer us all up.

Love and Marriage

The other thing to remember about emotion (in film) is, any idea (concept, meme) that you conceive will trigger an emotional response. (See The Kuleshov Effect Experiment, with those images of a bowl of soup, a hot woman reclining on a chaise lounge, and, a dead girl in a coffin.)

Like it or not, when you think of (or see an image of) `a dead girl’ you will not have a positive emotional reaction (well, if you’re relatively normal, and not everyone is.) You’ll probably be sad, or something.

This gets us into the idea that a film is a memeplex holarchy –  in other words, a massive web of ideas, (and – images, and sound) each of which provokes an emotional response (some of these emotional reactions are so slight that you may not be consciously aware of them. But studies have shown that if you read the word `kill’ your heart-rate goes up a little; it triggers various responses… like `fight or flight’, etc)

Also, the Kuleshov Effect example is complicated. We’re not just having our own emotional reactions to seeing: a bowl of soup, a hot woman reclining, and a dead girl. We’re also empathizing/sympathizing – to some extent – with the `expressionless actor’ who is also looking at them, and thanks to good old Eisenstein and montage theory, we’re also inferring/assuming what he’s thinking and feeling. As mammals and apes we have evolved these emotional instincts and responses (such as: empathy) that are complex and multi-factored. See this post about Boehm’s Hierarchy In The Forest and Brown’s Human Universals for more on all that.

This Means YOU

This Memes YOU

The point is, as long as you know what you are doing – as a filmmaker (and/or screenwriter) you can create any emotion you want at the start, middle and end of your story. You can start with humour, or terror, or both – or neither – or, whatever you like… (See: agency and structure in screenwriting… You can really choose to do whatever you want, there.) You can also end with humour – or terror – or – whatever emotion you like. Usually the Genre tends to dictate this emotional trajectory over the course of the film. – It would be unusual to end a Romantic Comedy with (say) terror – like say, that in The Blair Witch Project, and – it would of course also be equally unlikely to end a terror film with a laugh.

Then again – annoyingly, I can actually think of some successful (counter)-examples of: films that have actually done it. (e.g. Punch-Drunk Love ends on a note of fear/apprehension, and, Evil Dead 2 also ends on a funny note.)

So – all I am trying to say is, at this point, there’s not much I can see, that’s worth reporting about `emotional rhythm’ in the Top 20 RoI Films. My hypothesis that there would be a pattern (common emotional rhythm) there, was unsupported by the evidence.

But – hey, now we know.

So – (*sigh*) I sacrificed that time in my life (to do that study on emotional rhythm) so, now – we don’t need to all die wondering about that. (I do hope, you appreciate that.)

Hey – Let’s all remember though – that I did actually find about 30 common elements in the top 20 RoI films (in their Story and Film and Filmmaking) – so, this all certainly hasn’t been a waste of my time. Au contraireQuite the opposite. (Maybe read the entire StoryAlity blog from Post #1 to see, all that good stuff. And I sincerely hope that you benefit from that research/information/knowledge – and, that it makes your own film go viral. If you choose to use it.)

The Scientific Method

The Scientific Method – is: sometimes deeply-disappointing, especially when it doesn’t confirm one of your hypotheses. But: So it goes. Science is not for pussies.

At any rate – one reason I did this investigation (examining emotional rhythms in the Top 20 RoI Films) was also that, I was very inspired by Ian David’s research on emotional patterns in the work of Shakespeare.

Ian gave a great paper on it at the 5th International Screenwriting Research Conference in 2012, and it was also subsequently published in Journal of Screenwriting. (It’s a terrific article – and I commend it to you.)

Here is the abstract from that paper:

`Abstract: Screenwriting and emotional rhythm (by Ian David, 2013)

Recent advances in neuroscience have begun to unravel the part played by emotion in decision-making and creativity. All storytellers rely on emotion, but the screenwriter, conveying the essential narrative and technical information required to make a film, carries a unique burden. Screenplays must act as a bridge from the author to the audience, describing the narrative’s capacity to evoke emotion through action and image. In discussing a screenplay, the narrative is usually assessed in terms of its characters, plot, subplots, theme, dialogue, tone, style, etc. Yet, emotion, the quality that determines the screenplay’s (and ultimately the film’s) overall effect, is often poorly understood. This paper proposes Emotional Rhythm – that subliminal sequence of emotions underpinning all the dramatic components – as a means of evaluating the screenplay’s potency as it relates to the construction of the narrative.’ 

(David 2014)  

Anyway – so, back to Bordwell in ELF: A Reader (2010):

`What processes enable is to perceive, comprehend and respond emotionally to moving pictures? Here, in gross outline, is one answer.

As humans we have evolved certain capacities and predispositions, ranging from perceptual ones (biological mechanisms for delivering information about the world we live in) to social ones (e.g., affinities with and curiosity about other humans). Out of these capacities and predispositions, and by bonding with our conspecifics, we have built a staggeringly sophisticated array of cultural practices – skills, technologies arts, and institutions. Moving pictures are such a practice. We designed them to mesh with our perceptual and cognitive capacities. What hammers are to hands, movies are to minds: a tool exquisitely shaped to the powers and purposes of human activity.

A great deal of movies’ effects – more than many contemporary film theories allow – stem from their impact on our sensory systems. We are prompted to detect movement, shape, colour and sounds, and this is surely one of the transcultural capacities that movies tap.

Similarly, films from all nations and times draw upon more “cognitive” skills, such as categorizing an object as living or nonliving, or seeing a face as furious – abilities that, it’s reasonable to think, are part of our evolutionary heritage.

And because affective states and counterfactual speculation are of adaptive advantage, it is likely that an artistic medium that permits emotional and imaginative expression would have appeal across cultural boundaries.

If we consider culture to be an elaboration of evolutionary processes, there’s no inherent gulf between “biology” and “society” in this explanatory framework.’

(Bordwell in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 282-3)

Again, for more on that – see the StoryAlity post on Human Universals.

And here is a picture of a funny cute little squirrel, to cheer us up some more.

Execute Order 66

Execute Order 66

Finally, back to Bordwell:

A great deal of what is conveyed in a movie is conveyed naturally – through those perceptual-cognitive-affective universals that are part of our biological inheritance.

Most scholars in the humanities tend to doubt the existence (or the importance) of empirical universals.

Further, the framework hypothesizes causal and functional explanations for social practices.

Most humanists, though, prefer interpretation to explanation. When they do seek explanations, they rule out biological causes or functions as too deterministic and prefer some form of social-learning theory.

The framework I traced also takes rational-empirical enquiry, of which science is our most successful exemplar, as the most promising way to explain cultural practices.

But academic humanists on the whole mistrust science, and sometimes, rational empirical enquiry more generally.

Film academics are on the whole even more suspicious of this framework than their peers in other disciplines, I believe. This is largely because film studies, entering university humanities departments in the late 1960s, became rather quickly attached to certain doctrines.

Most of these, such as semiotics and psychoanalytic theory, were deeply antinaturalistic (at least in the versions that became influential). Although these particular doctrines have lost their grip, an extreme version of cultural constructivism is at the base of most film studies… Film studies remains, in a word, dogmatic.’

(Bordwell in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 283-5)

Look – don’t get me wrong: I’m all for dogmatism – just as long as it’s consilient dogmatism.

Otherwise – it’s just a bunch of `unconnected random knowledge’ that – usually – doesn’t solve any problems.

(And: Filmmakers certainly have some big problems – for e.g.: 7 in 10 films lose money.)

See: StoryAlity #115The `Less-Than-1%’ Problem in the Domain of Film


Consilience – the unification of knowledge

And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)

And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:

StoryAlity #71On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

Comments, always welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



David Bordwell, reprinted in Boyd, B., Carroll, J., & Gottschall, J. (2010). Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

Carroll, J, Gottschall, J, Johnson, JA & Kruger, DJ (2012), Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning, 1st Edn, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

David, I (2014), ‘Screenwriting and Emotional Rhythm’, Journal of Screenwriting, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 47-57.

Koestler, A (1989), The Act of Creation, Arkana, London.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.


One thought on “StoryAlity #88 – On Evolution, Emotion and Film (David Bordwell)

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #71B – Invalid Criticisms of Consilience | StoryAlity

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