Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2013: Beyond Film

Mirror Neurons and Simulation Theory: A Neurophysiological Foundation for Cinematic Empathy

Daniel C. Shaw


     One of the most exciting discoveries in recent neuroscience is the identification of mirror neurons, unique brain cells that fire identically whether one is engaging in an activity or watching someone else do so.  Motor mirror neurons lead us to anticipate the actions associated with an object (e.g. the tendency to grasp and/or chew when one sees someone eating), while emotive mirror neurons lead us to feel what the other person is feeling. Mirror neurons have become the locus of much research into the origins of a wide variety of emotional phenomena, from empathy to envy.  The existence of emotive mirror neurons provide a solid basis for preferring traditional notions of identification over cognitive accounts of criterial prefocusing (offered by Noel Carroll) and simulation theory (proposed by Gregory Currie) of our emotional responses to cinematic fictions.

     Accordingly, the presentation will be divided into three sections.  Section one will give a brief summary of the scientific research into the existence and nature of mirror neurons that has occurred from the 1990s to the present. Section two will survey the key philosophical controversies and major rival accounts of our emotional response to cinematic fictions.  Finally, in section three, I will argue that the existence and function of mirror neurons provides evidence for simulation theory of the emotional experience of motion pictures.

     The controversies this essay will address are far from trivial.  Do we identify with fictional characters in films?  Is so, how is such identification secured?  Why on earth would we ever want to feel with such characters, and how do cinematic artists get us to do so?  The question throughout is whether recent developments in neuroscience have implications for aesthetic theorizing, and for philosophical theories of the emotions.


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About the Presenter

Daniel C. Shaw
Lock Haven Univesity
United States

Professor of Philosophy

Editor of Film and Philosophy

Author of three books including Film and Philosophy:Taking Movies Seriously and Morality and the Movies: Reading Ethics through Film