The history and purpose of SCSMI

Why do movies so entrance us?
What makes their stories and sensations so compelling?
How do they stimulate our senses, arouse our emotions, and provoke our intellect?

Even before media studies became an academic pursuit, thinkers of a scientific bent were facing these questions. Hugo Münsterberg, Rudolf Arnheim, and the Soviet Montage filmmakers pondered how films could fit themselves so snugly to our minds. Thinkers of a more humanistic inclination, like André Bazin, still appealed to psychological principles in order to explain the appeal of the realism of the cinematic image. Semiologists, though sometimes interested in the pure play of filmic “codes,” also inquired into how people could “read” them. “What must be understood,” Christian Metz famously noted, “is how films are understood.”

Taking up the line of inquiry initiated by these and other figures, a broad research tradition has emerged since the mid-1980s. That tradition tries to understand the power of the moving image by approaching it naturalistically. It examines how the theories and findings of empirical science can shed light on the art and craft of film, television, and other audiovisual media. More specifically, this naturalistic research tradition has proposed that many questions can be illuminated by the cognitive sciences.

The cognitive revolution of the 1960s shaped not only psychology but linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, economics, sociology, musicology, literature, and the study of the visual arts. Cognitively flavored research projects range from computational models of mind to more phenomenological, body-oriented ones; from social cognition to studies of child development; from theories of modularity to conceptions of cognition grounded in evolutionary factors.

An active group of scholars has sought to explain certain aspects of media within this broad, naturalistic framework. Some of these scholars come from media studies departments; they are often theorists or historians of cinema or television. Many others come from adjacent disciplines in which cognitive theories flourish. The result has been an impressive series of books, articles, papers, lectures, and conferences. It is with the purpose of fostering this line of work that several scholars have formed the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image.

The Society began as the Center for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image. It was founded by Joseph and Barbara Anderson during their stay at the University of Kansas. There, in 1997, the Center sponsored its first international conference. The Center migrated with the Andersons to Georgia State University, and then to the University of Central Arkansas. Over these years, a series of conferences was established, thanks in large part to overseas scholars who eagerly hosted the events. In 1999, the Center’s conference was held at the University of Copenhagen; in 2001, the event was held at the University of Pecs, Hungary; in 2004, Michigan’s Calvin College played host; and in 2006, the conference took place at the University of Potsdam. Over the same period, the Andersons and colleagues founded the Journal of Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, which became a venue for the work of interested scholars.

Up to this point, the organization was a somewhat amorphous one, a band of like-minded individuals who met every few years to share ideas. In 2006, because of the keen interest of many scholars in the US and abroad, a freestanding organization with officers and bylaws was created and named the Society for the Cognitive Study of the Moving Image. In 2009, the Society adopted the newly created journal, Projections, as its official publication. The Society is currently incorporated as a not-for-profit academic association.

Because the cognitive perspective is inherently interdisciplinary, the Society welcomes the participation of both humanists and social scientists. One factor uniting its membership is the belief that problems of media, including artistic ones, can be illuminated by empirical experimentation and naturalistic theories. At the same time, the Society has shown that experimental work can be made more nuanced by recognizing art as a distinct activity, with historical, social, and cultural implications. For example, humanists learn from experimenters’ efforts to show how perceptual activity shapes a film’s effects. Social scientists can benefit from understanding how genres and traditions of filmmaking can shape the viewer’s response. And the Society has fostered a space for philosophical analysis of the empirical, analytical, and historical research.

From the start, the Society has provided a meeting point for a lively, informed, and respectful dialogue among research areas that seldom converge in today’s hyperspecialized university. Through this conversation, the Society believes, central questions about the design, functions, and effects of moving-image media can be posed…and answered.