Stacie Friend, Birkbeck University of London

Opening Minds at the Movies

How can art “open our minds” and “expand our horizons”? 

Does watching different types of films influence different aspects of open-mindedness? 

What specific features of films on the one hand, and audiences on the other, predict and modulate these effects?

Grant Title
Art Opening Minds: Imagination and Perspective in Film
Legal Organization
Birkbeck University of London
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 June 2022
End Date: 30 November 2023
Grant Amount

Humanities scholars have long argued that the arts contribute importantly to human thriving or, at the very least, are cognitively valuable in various ways. Many philosophers have offered arguments in support of this position. However, claims about what benefits humanity are ultimately empirical claims about the world, which can be investigated empirically. It’s time to “call for backup” as Ordell Robbie did in the film Jackie Brown.

The “backup” is cognitive science, which can provide  philosophers and other scholars with scientific evidence for the claims they make about the arts. This appeals to scholars like Stacie Friend, Ph.D., an expert in the philosophy of fiction, whose team is using state-of-the-art technology to study something never before investigated: can the power of film truly enhance a person’s open-mindedness?

“The idea of testing these questions is exciting from the point of view of a philosopher,” Friend points out, “where we’re normally thought of as only being in our armchairs. And here, we get a chance to find out if the claims we’re making might turn out to be true.”

Get More Open-Minded About Open-Mindedness

Open-mindedness is standardly considered an intellectual virtue that contributes to truth-seeking. It’s a key aim of pedagogy insofar as it is considered an important skill to instill in children. The philosophical definition of open-mindedness emphasizes a person’s willingness to reconsider their own beliefs and take seriously the opposed beliefs of other people. 

However, the philosophical definition of this virtue is too restrictive in the context of art, which may open our minds without necessarily changing our beliefs, for instance by getting us to adopt a different perspective on the world, to “see things differently” than we did before. 

“The idea of testing these questions is exciting from the point of view of a philosopher, where we're normally thought of as only being in our armchairs.” - Dr. Stacie Friend

A connection to film is easy to make. As Riley asks in Pixar’s Inside Out, “Did you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?” Movie viewing often invites an audience take on the perspective of others. 

Open-mindedness in this broader sense is associated with such characteristics as creativity, imaginativeness, and cognitive flexibility, which have time-tested metrics in the cognitive sciences.

For example, can watching a film improve your capacities for creative thinking and imagination? What about your receptiveness to new ideas, or your ability to adapt to new situations? A constellation of measurements of such capacities will give Friend’s team important clues about the power of film to expand the human mind and its potential. If the results of the different measurements are highly correlated, this would be a good reason to think they’re part of the same capacity, under the umbrella of open-mindedness. 

Measuring Mind Changes Over Popcorn

Studying the cognitive effects of film is complex. There are many variables to consider, since movies have so many elements (visuals, sound design, score, editing styles, etc.). Another complication comes from differences among audiences, which make it difficult to draw conclusions by looking at correlations between film-watching and open-mindedness. It may be that open-minded people are drawn to certain types of films, rather than the films enhancing open-mindedness; in other words, correlation does not imply causation. 

But Friend’s interdisciplinary team – consisting of researchers in cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and film studies in addition to philosophy – have designed three studies to gather evidence of causal connections. In addition, in one study they use the latest eye-tracking and heart-rate-monitoring techniques to gather real-time data while participants watch a film. 

Study 1 – Formal Complexity – Does a more complex and challenging film (the type more highly valued by critics) increase the qualities associated with open-mindedness? Christopher Nolan’s Memento famously challenged audiences with its scenes edited in reverse chronological order. In the first study by Friend’s team, one experimental group of adult participants will watch the film in its original form, while a second will watch the alternate (less complex) version, with scenes in chronological order. Results from both will be compared to a control group who watch no film.

Study 2 – Perspectives – Do films that show events from the perspectives of multiple characters especially increase the audience’s open-mindedness? In this study, the two experimental groups will watch the final segment of Quentin Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown. The first group will see the original version, which shows the perspectives of several main characters leading up to the finale. An edited version will be shown to a second group, with all but one character’s perspective removed. A parallel study will be conducted with children, albeit with a more appropriate film, Hoodwinked, which updates the Little Red Riding Hood folktale, presenting the perspectives of both “Red” and the wolf. 

Study 3 – Genre – Do some genres of film have a higher likelihood of influencing open-mindedness than others? This study will test whether fantasy scenes, which require more significant leaps of imagination, have a greater impact on open-mindedness compared to relatively realistic scenes. Adults and children will watch different segments of films that include both kinds of scenes (e.g., Coco, Soul), to determine the cognitive effects of stretching the imagination.

Open-Mindedness for this Moment

As Friend emphasizes, “Open-mindedness is particularly important right now. There have been a lot of scholars pointing out that we’re living in an era that’s more polarized, in particular politically … I think, if there are ways to enhance open-mindedness, using a medium that is so widespread and accessible, then we should certainly consider how to do that.” Movies can’t entirely solve this problem, of course, but they could be an important tool. 

She’s also excited by the prospect of giving the gift of open-mindedness to youth, as the findings of these studies become available to educators, noting “Younger minds tend to be the most plastic to begin with, and most likely to learn, [so they are] the ones that we want to be open-minded as they acquire new information about the world.”

Memento’s Leonard Shelby says, “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind.” Perhaps film could be an important part of transcending our own limited experiences and understanding the world beyond. 

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