Bourne · film education · Films · Hitchcock · Teaching Ideas

Dorsals and ventrals: neuroscience, film and literature

The incredibly brilliant Mark Cousins has written a fascinating article in September’s Sight and Sound which explores the ways in which a knowledge of neuroscience and its study of behavioural patterns can illuminate the study of film. Cousins uses an analogy of the brain’s ventral and dorsal systems to explain different visual/aesthetic styles in the world of cinema. The ventral system is that part of our brain which seems to be responsible for explicit understanding – the ‘what’ element which, in Cousins’ example “tells you that the thing coming at you as you cross the road is a motorbike”; the dorsal system, on the other hand, deals with the problem and “tells you where the bike is and how to avoid it” – it is the ‘where’ to the ventral’s ‘what’.

Now I like simple analogies and this one works for me; it’s so clear and simple that I could feel a table or a chart coming on. Instead, Cousins does it for me: ventral is the ‘objectivists’ like Hitchcock and Lynch, those directors who are not afraid to linger on specific details; I would add the late Abbas Kiarostami perhaps, Alan Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, the films of Patrick Keiller and Peter Strickland (his Duke of Burgundy obsesses over butterflies, moths and stockings with one reviewer declaring that it was “as sexy as a chess game and as insightful as a catalogue”).

On the dorsal side there is John Woo, James Bond, David Fincher perhaps (especially The Social Network). And Bourne. I went to see Jason Bourne at the weekend not having seen any of the others (not that that was a problem – Bourne’s story is as ingrained into the cultural consciousness as much as Harry Potter’s); this is definitely dorsal; the camera is kinetic, free flowing; it appeals to shorter attention spans and even shorter-term memories.

That’s not to say that all films can be fitted snug and neat into either category; in fact, not all spectacular action is purely kinetic; think of disaster sequences in Armageddon for example which are dorsal in the kinetic, furious action of the camera but also linger long enough to show just exactly what happens to Paris/London/Tokyo etc. I’m currently working on Andrea Arnold’s films and these certainly straddle both dorsal and ventral systems: her kinetic camerawork often stops for a breath and gazes thoughtfully upon empty spaces – Essex edgelands, Glaswegian tower blocks, weeds and wasteland.

This made me have a quick look at the internet to see how this applies to learning and knowledge acquisition. I know very little about neuroscience but what I did find tended to reinforce what Cousins was saying and a little more. The ventral system is linked to explicit learning skills which show a clear awareness of set tasks and the goals needed to learn them; ventrals form associations; they are visual and are founded on object recognition. On the other hand, the dorsal system is linked to the more implicit learning that occurs outside of conscious awareness; it’s all about spatial location; it is memory and instinct.

Now there doesn’t seem to be a hierarchy here: whilst you would think that the ventral Hitchcock, Strickland and Kiarostami might be seen as more culturally highbrow than dorsals such as Bourne and Bond, it is interesting to note that the dorsal system is the part of the brain used by early readers to decode words (that makes sense, I suppose as early word recognition relies on memory) whilst it is the ventral system which is deployed by older readers (again, makes sense – forming associations, making inferences then).

And if you don’t know WHAT the motorbike is and WHAT it might do to you, then you’ve got no bloody chance of getting out of the way.

So what?

So I was thinking about how this could be applied to literature. Think about those passages in Dickens when nothing happens but the description of place, character, emotions. I suppose these are the ventral passages; the focus on details, the lingering minutiae; the “slowness and centrality” which is what Cousins calls it. The ventral opening to Bleak House with its famous rendition of fog:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck.

The reader feels the fog as if it were breathing out of the page; although Dickens describes it movement (the personifying verbs allow us to follow the fog as it oozes through London’s streets) it is the emphasis on the object itself which lingers. It is a series of stills linked together by verbs; it could be filmed by Chris Marker or Patrick Keiller, for each still, to use Cousins again, “burns slowly into our consciousness”.


Then there is Great Expectations. Good old Great Expectations. It’s opening flips between ventrals and dorsals; the description of the Kentish marshes which draws the landscape in vivid ventral clarity quickly yields to this:

“O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it, sir.”

“Tell us your name!” said the man. “Quick!”

“Pip, sir.”

“Once more,” said the man, staring at me. “Give it mouth!”

“Pip. Pip, sir.”

“Show us where you live,” said the man. “Pint out the place!”

The sharp dialogue, stichomythic in its cut and thrust duelling, adds to the dorsal urgency of the scene. Language refuses to stand still, Pip’s responses are instinctive, honest – he has his throat to save – and outside of his conscious awareness.

Talking of stichomythia, what about Macbeth and act 2 scene 2, with its anxious, fearful exchanges between Lady Macbeth and her husband that swirl around the page, and refuse to stand still? This is Bourne territory: short lines which jump from character to character, its intensity obscuring the horror of its reality. The Macbeths know what’s going to hit ‘em and they need to get out of the way. Plans ferment in Lady Macbeth’s instinctive brain and when Macbeth refuses to act, she does it for him. She moves upwards, to the stairs and out of sight; Macbeth moves to the well whilst the language focuses ventrally, for a short while on the blood on his hands. But soon Lady Macbeth returns, her devices satiated; the knocking at the gate, the swift retreat…

Now think about act 1 scene 5, as Lady Macbeth lingers at the window or the battlements or wherever you want her to be. She casts her spell on her audience and her hex on Duncan. It’s all dorsals. Ravens, blood, breasts, milk, night, darkness. We are transfixed and so we should be for she means business. Forget the movement in the verbs (come, stop, brings): she remains in place, waiting for her royal prey (she can walk about as much as she wants, as much as you want, but it’s the imagery that compels us, not any movement).

Both scenes are dramatic, immortal, and both sear themselves onto our consciousness in different ways. It’s the desire for the act and the afterglow of its execution; tumescence and detumescence if you will.

Learners will get this; show them some film clips of dorsals and ventrals – movement images and time images – and get them to think about how each is successful in rendering meaning and intensity. Have a look at a couple of scenes; get them to think about whether they’re dorsals or ventrals and why they think this. Doesn’t matter if they don’t know – do we? What matters is that it’s another way of exploring literature as something organic, something that refuses to stay still, that isn’t tied to what someone else thinks, least of all the teacher.

Thanks to this book – Human Learning: Biology, Brain and Neuroscience edited by Mark Guadagnoli et al -for giving me a few more insights into neuroscience. And thanks to Mark Cousins.




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