The Rhetorical Alternative in Neurocinematics

Sean Tiffee



In 2008, researchers at New York University’s Computational Neuroimaging Laboratory challenged our contemporary understanding of audience with an alternative approach to engaging some of the most essential questions regarding film consumption. The study itself used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner during the “free viewing of films” allowing researchers the opportunity to see which sections of the brain are activated during certain parts of the viewing (Hasson et al. 2). In an effort to overcome limitations of fMRI imaging, the researchers further utilized an inter-subjective correlation (ISC) technique to validate their findings. Simply put, ISC looks at the similar effects in neuroimaging across a range of viewers for the same rhetorical artifact; the higher the similarity, the more confident the researchers are that the impact of the film is the same for most or all viewers. This impact is said to “control” the viewers mental and emotional state in that they can be a reliable way to predict a viewer’s “emotions, thoughts, [and] attitudes” (Hasson et al. 2). The researchers termed their work “neurocinematics” and concluded that this new approach could “contribute to the cognitive movement in film theory, analogous to contributions that neuroscience has made to cognitive and social psychology.” (Hasson et al. 21).

Since the publication of this research, there have been over a dozen academic essays published, including additional work in the hard sciences, and contributions from psychology and literary and film studies (see Cohen, Shavalian and Rube; Loschky et al.; Erincin; Kauttonen, Hlushchuk and Tikka; Christoforou et al.). Many seem to be responding to the original authors’ calls for neurocinematics to be “a new interdisciplinary field” between “cognitive neuroscience and film studies” that is “part of a larger endeavor that looks for connections between neuroscience and art” (Hasson et al. 1, 21). Noticeably missing from their call for an inter-disciplinary approach, however, is one that includes rhetorical studies. In fact, to date, there has only been a single publication referring to neurocinematics in communication studies – an essay that was not specific to film nor audience, and that limited its discussion to the effectiveness of fMRI imaging (see Weber, Mangus and Huskey). It is the argument of this essay that rhetorical studies should be included in neurocinematics for two reasons: first, rhetorical studies can provide an alternative theoretical understanding of narrative that should prove to be enlightening for this emerging field; and second, rhetorical studies can provide the necessary ethical positioning for this emerging field.

The Rhetorical Studies Alternative

The first justification for the inclusion of rhetorical studies in neurocinematics is the alternative theoretical approach to narrative that rhetoricians can provide. The original neurocinematics research found that structured stories provided a much higher degree of ISC than open-ended, unstructured “real life” depictions. The researchers showed 10 minutes of Sergio Leone’s film, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and a 10-minute stable shot of a Saturday afternoon in Washington Square Park that represented an unstructured, real-life event. The researchers concluded that, “a mere mechanical reproduction of reality, with no directorial intention or intervention, is not sufficient by itself for controlling viewer’s brain activity” (Hasson et al. 8). That the “slice of real life” didn’t have the same predictive functions as the “intentional construction of the film’s sequence through aesthetic means” has important implications for rhetorical studies (Hasson et al. 9). It’s not cinematic imagery alone that corresponds to brain activations, but the construction of story and the aesthetic elements of narrative presentations (that is to say, the creation of rhetoric) that has predictive functions. 

In A Grammar of Motives, Kenneth Burke notes that dramatism “invites one to consider the matter of motives in a perspective that, being developed from the analysis of drama, treats language and thought primarily as modes of action” (xxii). For Burke, all of our stories are the product of thought, whether it be conscious or unconscious, and this thought belies how we view the world of symbols in which we live. Michael Overington contends that dramatism

addresses the empirical questions of how persons explain their actions to themselves and others, what the cultural and social structural influences on these interpretations might be, and what effect connotational links among the explanatory (motivational) terms might have on these explanations and hence, on action itself. (133)

Language is the vehicle for human behaviour and represents how we describe the world to ourselves and to others so that “a rhetor’s language can be used to discover motive” (Foss, Foss and Trapp 200). Film is nothing short of a dramatistic explanation that allows us the opportunity to dissect it with more detail to determine the worldview not only of the auteur, but of the spectator as well. Although film studies has its own theories on story and structure, a “systematic application” of Burke’s dramatism “enables an observer to reconstruct various perspectives of ‘reality’” (Stewart, Smith, and Denton 168). 

When compared to film studies, as an academic discipline, rhetorical studies offers an alternative understanding of narrative. Film studies asks us to apply a structural model to a narrative, while rhetorical studies asks us to apply a systems model that unmasks a narrative. As an example, film studies might examine a film’s structure, looking at the rising action of subplot B as it corresponds in the third reel to the declining action of the subplot A before denouement. As an alternative example, rhetorical studies could offer a dramatistic reading to examine the motivations of scenic ratios between the two subplots as it defines cinematic reality for the audience. Although neurocinematics may help predict the affective impact of the subplots for an audience, it is currently rooted in a structural assumption of audience and narrative, which fails to provide a full account of the spectator’s experience as it relates to the filmmaker’s rhetorical motivation. The addition of rhetorical studies to the conversation can provide an alternative approach and give an additional richness to our understandings of audience.

While film studies may engage the ideological function of films, rhetorical studies amplifies their findings. In “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin writes,

the storytelling that thrives for a long time in the milieu of work … is itself an artisanal form of communication, as it were. It does not aim to convey the pure ‘in itself’ or gist of a thing, like information or a report. It submerges the thing into the life of the story-teller, in order to bring it out of him again. (149)

For Benjamin, the storyteller is an artisan that exists external to the rhetorical artifact itself, which, of course, means that the structural focus of film studies falls inevitably short. Further, Benjamin argues that there is an ideological component to both narrative and its medium. He writes, “Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history” (Benjamin "Reproducibility" 255, emphasis in original). The oral tradition of storytelling is different, as is the storytelling of the novel, film, and so on. Indeed, it is the goal of neurocinematics to illustrate how the rhetoric of film is distinct from other forms of narrative discourse, which necessarily demands an inter-disciplinary focus that allows for an interrogation of the ideological functions that exist both within and without the text, which is what Burke’s dramatism provides.

Further, Walter Fisher’s work with narrative extends the role of rhetorical theory into what should be discussed in neurocinematics. Fisher contends that the narrative form is something that is unique to humans, but something that all humans engage in; for him, “stories are fundamental to communication because they provide structure for our experience as humans and because they influence people to live in communities that share common explanations and understandings” (Burgchardt 239). As noted earlier, neurocinematics argues that there is a coherence in cinematic narratives that don’t exist in “slice of life” filmic images. Similarly, Walter Fisher contends that this “coherence” is inborn in the narrative being (his homo narran) “their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes a coherent story, and their constant habit of testing narrative fidelity, whether the stories they experience ring true with the stories they know to be true in their lives” (8). 

The neurocinematics researchers conclude that, “the ISC analysis of brain activity can also serve as a measurement of systematic differences in how various groups of individuals … respond to the same film” (Hasson et al. 20). Fisher notes that the philosophical foundation of the rational world paradigm (which he sets opposite his narrative paradigm) “is epistemology. Its linguistic materials are self-evident propositions, demonstrations, and proofs, the verbal expressions of certain and probably knowing” (4). The danger with neurocinematics rooted in pure rationality is that it co-opts the narrative function, makes the spectator as agent and film as object separate from one another (when ISC begs that they interact), and brackets off questions such as ethics. Fisher concludes, “With knowledge of agents, we can hope to find that which is reliable or trustworthy; with knowledge of objects, we can hope to discover that which has the quality of veracity. The world requires both kinds of knowledge” (18). Of course, this question demands a discussion of ethics, which the current approach to neurocinematics explicitly denies as a subject of inquiry. The authors write, 

different filmmakers differ in the level of control they choose to impose on viewers, and out methods are not designed to judge this, but rather to measure the effect of a given film on different target groups. Thus the critical evaluation of each film is outside the domain of this research. (Hasson et al. 21-2)

This is the danger Fisher warns of. The assumption that neurocinematics can be a purely descriptive project is not only unfeasible, but also unconscionable. 

Unlike researchers who deny the place of ideology and ethics, “rhetorical critics, of course, have long recognized the centrality of ideology to persuasive discourse” (Burgchardt 451). To illustrate why this is a vital issue for neurocinematics, let’s take its existing descriptive project to its logical conclusion. Theoretically, researchers could reach a point where there was a 100% ISC, meaning that there existed a cinematic formula that would impact every audience member the same way and would “control” their emotional and mental states – for neurocinematics this would constitute the “perfect” film. This “perfect” film, however, wouldn’t exist in a research vacuum, but in a morass of culture, politics, and ideology. Cultural critic Slavoj Žižek notes the impact that Nine-Eleven had on film:

the ultimate twist in this link between Hollywood and the ‘war on terrorism’ occurred when the Pentagon decided to solicit the help of Hollywood: … at the beginning of November 2001, there was a series of meetings between White House advisors and senior Hollywood executives with the aim of co-ordinating the war effort and establishing how Hollywood could help in the war effort and establishing how Hollywood could help in the ‘war against terrorism’ by getting the right ideological meaning across not only to Americans, but to the Hollywood public around the globe – the ultimate empirical proof that Hollywood does in fact function as an ‘ideological state apparatus’. (16)

The ethical implications are overwhelming: propaganda films are nothing new, but neurocinematics has the potential to usher in a whole new type of propaganda cinema, under the guise of entertainment, that is 100% effective. The original neurocinematic research argued that “the ISC measurement should probably not be used to evaluate the aesthetic, artistic, social, or political value of movies” (Hasson et al. 21). Conversely, rhetorical studies demands that criticism and scholarship not only comment on texts, but ethical considerations “will not be averted either by ignoring it or placing it beyond our provence” (Wander 18).

Further, the very goal of neurocinematics demands the critical reaction that current rhetorical theory is prepared to provide. The stated end-game for neurocinematics is to determine how films discursively interact with a viewer’s mental state and, therefore, their affective response to an aesthetic experience. Raymie McKerrow notes that critical rhetorical theory must examine “the manner in which discourse insinuates itself in the fabric of social power, and thereby ‘effects’ the status of knowledge among the members of the social group” (92). Michael Calvin McGee argues, “We do not ‘observe’ objects and human actions … we construct these phenomena through rational acts of ‘selecting,’ ‘coordinating,’ ‘interpreting,’ and ‘applying’ sensory data” (48). There is no potential for a non-normative descriptive project inside of these parameters; there is no neutral observation by the spectator, the filmic experience is one that is constructed internally. Neurocinematics notes that there are interactions between brain spheres (e.g. neocortex and the amygdala) that create an intersubjective experience (which is quantitatively described with the ISC), but to explain, even descriptively, what is occurring in these viewers requires determining what the audience “knows” and how the discursive impact of the film effects them neurologically. 

The field of neurocinematics is not morally neutral, though it insists on presenting itself that way. At its most basic level, the researchers are not separate from the ethical and ideological functions of their studies: they make normative claims about which films are “worthy” of study, they manufacture inter-subjective reality with their critical reactions to the artifacts, and their communicative reporting in the essay itself provides agency to the film while simultaneously denying agency to the viewers. Further, when neurocinematics is taken to its logical conclusion (the ability to manufacture the descriptively “perfect” film – one with a 100% ISC), the ethical concerns are overwhelming. With Hollywood films operating more and more as a part of the ideological state apparatus, the potential for highly effective propaganda films becomes more and more real, and more and more frightening. If the conclusions by these researchers is true, that these films “control” our mental states, then the power of such propaganda films could be devastating.


This essay has argued that rhetorical scholars have not only a unique opportunity, but an ethical obligation, to insert ourselves into one of the most innovative inter-disciplinary fields to emerge in recent history. Neurocinematics has the potential to transform cognitive neuroscience and film studies both and it is imperative that rhetoricians insert themselves into this dialogue. First, the work that rhetorical studies has done on storytelling, narrative, and dramatism provides unique perspectives that have been overlooked by the structural models of film studies. Further, the scientists driving neurocinematics forward deny the need for political and value claims to be assessed to their work. Rhetorical studies has the opportunity to challenge these illusions of neutrality and help neuroscientists to understand that their work is, indeed, ideological, and that the dangers of ideology manifest themselves when these perspectives are pushed to the side under the guise of neutrality. 


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neurocinematics; rhetoric; communication theory; interdisciplinary studies; propaganda

Copyright (c) 2017 Sean Tiffee

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