We are hard-wired to respond to nudity yet, when combined with voice-over accounts of atrocities, these sequences produce a sense of cognitive dissonance. The performance is emotionally flat, signalling dreams and generating emotional ambiguity. The lack of narrative orientation makes for uncertainty in the viewer as to who and where one is. In this way, the emotional journey of the viewer is manipulated by the disruption of conventional film language rather than alignment with the on-screen protagonist.
Where previously emotion had been considered too subjective for neuroscientific attention, Antonio Damasio finds a close correlation between emotion and consciousness. He suggests that in evolutionary terms, emotion was probably in place before the dawn of consciousness and that both consciousness and emotion are rooted in the representation of the body.
when consciousness is suspended, from core consciousness on up, emotion is usually suspended as well suggesting that although emotion and consciousness are different phenomena, their underpinning may be connected.
What we are conscious of is the feeling of the emotional state of our brain and body in the act of being transformed by an internal or external object. Damasio’s project is to account for how the organism constructs the self. He proposes an evolutionary model: the proto-self, the nonconscious forerunner described as a map of the body in the brain; the core self, a primitive, conscious form of self that operates only in the here and now; and the autobiographical self that exists temporally with past memory and future projection, and is greatly enhanced in human beings by language. This model suggests that the dominant mode of thought, the autobiographical self and inner voice, is an evolutionary latecomer that is underpinned by earlier, non-linguistic modes of thought that are still in play but about which we are less aware.
Damasio describes the brain as constructing ‘primordial narratives of consciousness’. By narrative, he is not referring to a language-based story but to ‘a narrative or story in the sense of creating a nonlanguaged map of logically related events.’ He considers wordless storytelling to be natural and employs the term ‘movie-in-the-brain’ to describe how our feelings, represented as images, guide our behaviour. I see a relation between Damasio’s description of ‘primordial narratives of consciousness’ and the creative process; both suggest a process that is intuitive and non-linguistic.
Jon Sletvold reviews the Freudian topology of the psyche in the light of Damasio’s construct of self. He reminds us that Freud sees the ego as a bodily ego and relates this to Damasio’s assertion that what we are conscious of is, first and foremost, our inner milieu and homeostatic regulation. He shows that both Freud and Damasio see primordial feelings as the foundation of the psyche and influential drivers underpinning conscious thought. Sletvold distinguishes two different modes of thought, feelings and verbalised thought, and likens these to Freud’s ego and id. He draws a parallel between Damasio’s autobiographical self and the Freudian ego, as well as a description of the id that operates similarly to the Damasian core self: an emotional and primordial entity.
To summarise, Freud challenged the dominant view that we primarily operate with conscious volition. Since Freud, the scientific view has continued along that trajectory, with a current understanding that much of mental life is nonconscious and rooted in biological concern.
Peter Wyeth’s study of affective neurobiology and cinema emphasises Sam Fuller’s statement that ‘Cinema is, in a word Emotion’. He argues against the logocentric understanding of structuralist film theory and proposes an alternative analytical framework informed by neuroscience and evolutionary biology. He stresses that vision precedes language, that cinema is a visual medium, and that our comprehension of cinema should be informed by our understanding of vision and emotion. He states that much of the information in a film is processed nonconsciously and suggests ‘narrativising’ is a process across many functions of the brain.
Irving Massey considers a function of creative thought to be concerned with novelty. He reminds us that natural selection favours adaptability above all else, and upholds creativity as advantageous in evolutionary terms. The work of art provides a view that is different to ordinary perception. For him, art seeks essences, which metaphor provides access to, and metaphors are ‘incubators of ideas’. Massey acknowledges that dreams are pre-linguistic in evolutionary terms and notes that during sleep the linguistic centres of the brain are inactive. He proposes that dream language ‘represents an undertow in all our expression’. In this way, artistic practice promotes novel association. I see a parallel in Damasio’s description of the ‘non-languaged map’ and Massey’s understanding of metaphor. Both draw a distinction between the mental representation of feelings and verbalised thought. Similar accounts are found in the field of physics.
Roger Penrose, a significant contributor to the theory of general relativity and cosmology, argues against the common association of language with consciousness, suggesting that this has arisen from philosophy, in which language is the medium of thought. As a mathematician, he tells us that on occasion when interrupted while deep in thought he has found language inaccessible. He cites Einstein:
The words or language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements of thought are certain signs and more or less clear images.
This description of mathematical thought echoes accounts of the creative process. Damasio, Sletvold, Wyeth, Massey, and Penrose describe a mode of thought that is sensory, image-based, symbolic, and comprised of metaphor, and concur that this mode of thought precedes language in evolutionary terms. I propose this affective language of metaphor can be interrogated through the creative process and introduce new ways of seeing. Paul Klee tells us: ‘Art does not represent the visual world, it makes things visible’.