Hugo Münsterberg

Obviously, moviegoers take the underlying illusion of apparent motion for granted. In addition, however, we readily accept and understand a variety of more elaborate and expressive strategies—editing, for example—that foster and enhance the illusion of various forms of movement in the movies, all of which can be executed in the same twenty-fourth of a second required to supplant one frame with another. German-born psychologist Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916) was convinced that we—spectators—also play a role in creating the illusions of movement in the movies. In the case of apparent motion, he observes,

we find that the movement . . . is perceived but that the eye does not receive the impressions of true movement. It is only a suggestion of movement, and the idea of motion is to a high degree the product of our own reaction. . . . Depth and movement . . . are present, and yet they are not in the things. We invest the impressions with them.[1]

“Our Ideas and Feelings and Impulses”

Münsterberg proceeds to analyze the qualities inherent in such common cinematic devices as the closeup: “What are the essential processes in the mind,” he asks, “when we turn our attention to one face in the crowd, to one little flower in the wide landscape?” In effect, he replies, when the distant image of a crowd or a landscape suddenly becomes the “closeup” image of a single face or a single flower, the spectator's attention has been redirected in a highly calculated manner. “We may say,” Münsterberg contends,

that whatever attracts our attention in the sphere of any sense, sight or sound, touch or smell, surely becomes more vivid and more clear in our consciousness. This does not mean that it becomes more intense. . . . It has taken a stronger hold of us or, as we may say by way of metaphor, it has come into the center of our consciousness.

But this involves a second aspect which is surely no less important. While the intended impression becomes more vivid, all the other impressions become less vivid, less clear, less distinct, less detailed. They fade away. We no longer notice them. They have no hold on our mind; they disappear. . . . We feel that our body adjusts itself to the perception. . . . The lens in our eye is accommodated exactly to the correct distance. In short, our bodily personality works toward the fullest possible interpretation. . . . Our ideas and feelings and impulses group themselves around the intended object. It becomes the starting point for our actions while all the other objects in the sphere of our senses lose their grip on our ideas and feelings.[2]

Only when attention permits us to isolate an impression and to invest it with “our ideas and feelings and impulses” are we prepared to experience the importance of the “movement” by which one impression supplants another. According to Münsterberg, in other words, we comprehend this form of movement as meaningful in a manner that is, analogously or metaphorically, the same as the manner in which we perceive movement between two successive images of the same object.

Münsterberg then extends the metaphor of attention to the metaphor of remembering. Consider, for example, a movie about a young missionary from New England in the perilous wilds of Africa:

We see the jungle [and] the hero at the height of his danger; and suddenly there flashes upon the screen a picture of the past. For not more than two seconds does the idyllic New England scene slip into the exciting African events. When one deep breath is over, we are stirred again by the event of the present. That home scene of the past flitted by just as a hasty thought of bygone days darts through the mind.[3]

What Münsterberg describes here is a flashback. He calls it the “cut-back” and contends that its effect is much like that of the closeup. In the closeup, he says,

we recognize the mental act of attending; in the [cut-back], we must recognize the mental act of remembering. . . . It is as if the outer world itself became molded in accordance with our fleeting turns of attention or with our passing memory ideas. . . . In short, [the photoplay] can act as our imagination acts. It has the mobility of our ideas, which are not controlled by the physical necessity of outer events but by the psychological laws for the association of ideas. In our mind, past and future become intertwined with the present. The photoplay obeys the laws of the mind rather than those of the outer world. . . .

Memory looks toward the past, expectation and imagination toward the future. But in the midst of the perception of our surroundings, our mind turns not only to that which has happened before and which may happen later; it is interested in happenings at the same time in other places. . . . The whole manifoldness of parallel currents with their endless interconnections is the true substance of our understanding.[4]

Gestalt Theory as Film Theory

In equating attention and memory, Münsterberg suggests that the mechanics of the “photoplay” provide a profoundly instructive metaphor for the ways in which the moviegoer’s cognitive processes reflect those which are based in his senses: the movement of cinematic images across time and memory, much like the “movement” of objects in apparent motion through space, takes place as if instantaneously—that is, apparently without any intermediary movement across our cognitive landscape.

For Münsterberg, the movies represented a striking illustration of the results of his academic research. If we recall that he was writing in 1916—when there was barely any “history” of cinema and certainly no “theory” of it—we can perhaps see why an early theorist might have been so eager to seize upon psychological response as the key to understanding the unique nature of the moviegoer’s excitement, sensory and cognitive as well as emotional. To the theorist who maintains that the cinema’s first strategic discoveries remain the key to its inherent powers to excite its audience, the approach is still compelling. In 1948, British archivist-critic Ernest Lindgren declared in another early milestone of film theory that

the fundamental psychological justification of editing as a method of representing the physical world around us lies in the fact that it reproduces [the] mental process in which one visual image follows another as our attention is drawn to this point and to that in our surroundings. Insofar as the film is photographic and reproduces movement, it can give us a lifelike semblance of what we see; insofar as it employs editing, it can reproduce the manner in which we normally see it. . . . This very simple fact is the keystone not merely of the whole theory of film editing, but of the whole technique of filmic representation.[5]

The Movies as a Way of Presenting the World

Münsterberg was associated with the school known as Gestalt psychology, which argued from experiments into apparent motion and the phi phenomenon that our conscious experience amounts to more than mere bundles of discrete sensations.[6] After all, argued the Gestalt psychologists, did not someone perceiving apparent motion—say, one light in continuous movement—perceive something that was not actually there? And does this perception not imply a qualitatively different experience than mere sensory perception, which responds to something that actually is there? Does it not, in fact, imply a level of experience that emerges from but is not reducible to simple sensations (see Figure R1.1)?

If we apply this paradigm to Münsterberg’s description of the moviegoing experience, we arrive at the conclusion that our response to the “photoplay” consists in the emergence of this qualitatively irreducible experience. Moreover, if it is a level of experience that does not reduce to the world of simple sensual input, it stands to reason that it arises as the result of a constitutive act that the spectator has learned to perform by engaging the photoplay (or, rather, by allowing the photoplay to engage him). By extension, then, the photoplay can be seen as a “prompt” to this level of constitutive experience—a prompt that’s all the more valuable because it’s under the conscious control of the artist. In other words, Gestalt theory accounts for the way the cinema works by describing it as way of presenting the world which, in effect, teaches us how to perceive and experience the world in which we actually exist.

[1] See The Film: A Psychological Study (1916; rpt. New York: Dover, 1970), pp. 18-48. In a preliminary essay entitled “Why We Go to the Movies,” The Cosmpolitan 60:1 (December 15, 2015), pp. 22-32, Münsterberg addresses the question of whether the “photoplay” is a mode of education, art, or entertainment, arguing that it is in any case unique in the way in which it allows us to perceive the world; the essay is reprinted in Hugo Münsterberg on Film: The Photoplay—A Psychological Study and Other Writings, ed. Alan Langdale (New York and London: Routledge, 2002). A reprint can be found at (accessed May 22, 2016).

For detailed studies of Münsterberg’s general approach to film aesthetics, see Merle J. Moskowitz, “Hugo Münsterberg: A Study in the History of Applied Psychology,” American Psychologist 32:10 (1977), pp. 834-42; Noël Carroll, “Film/Mind Analogies: The Case of Hugo Münsterberg,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 46:4 (1988), pp. 489-99; Vincent Colapietro, “Let’s All Go to the Movies: Two Thumbs Up for Hugo Münsterberg’s ‘The Photoplay,’” Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society 36:4 (Fall 2000), pp. 477-501.

See also: J. Dudley Andrew, “Hugo Münsterberg,” in The Major Film Theories: An Introduction (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), ch. 1; and George Mitchell, “The Movies and Münsterberg,” Jump Cut, No. 27 (July 1982), pp. 57-66, at (accessed May 22, 2016), who discusses the significance of Münsterberg’s efforts to examine a form of popular entertainment in terms of his academic research on social psychology.

Pasi Nyssonen, “Film Theory at the Turning Point of Modernity” (1996), trans. Jorg Schweinitz, Film-Philosophy, at (accessed May 22, 2016), discusses Münsterberg’s twofold understanding of the uses of the “photoplay”: In the “practical” sense, films are a very good medium for disseminating knowledge; in the “aesthetic” sense, films prompt us by their very nature—“silence, coldness, flatness”—to dissociate ourselves from “real life” and thereby to develop our understanding of how our “major psychological functions—perception of depth and movement, attention, memory and imagination, and emotions”—mediate our experience of “reality.” Robert Sinnerbrink, “Hugo Münsterberg,” in Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers, ed. Felicity Colman (2009; London and New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 20-30, analyzes the significance of Münsterberg’s insistence upon the “parallel between cinematic devices and acts of consciousness.” In “Screening the Psychological Laboratory: Hugo Münsterberg, Psychotechnics, and the Cinema, 1892-1916,” Science in Context 28:1 (March 2015), pp. 53-76, Jeremy Blatter discusses Münsterberg’s 1916 collaboration with Paramount Pictures Corporation to translate psychological tests into short experimental films—part of a “psychotechnical method” by which Münsterberg sought to apply the lessons of the psychology lab to various aspects of everyday life.

[2] The Film: A Psychological Study, pp. 36-37.

[3] The Film: A Psychological Study, p. 40.

[4] The Film: A Psychological Study, pp. 41, 44.

[5] The Art of the Film, 2nd ed. (1963; rpt. New York: Collier, 1970), p. 67.

[6] This section borrows from brief overviews of Gestalt theory in Lyle E. Bourne Jr. et al., Cognitive Processes, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1986), pp. 24-27; and Thomas Hardy Leahey, A History of Psychology: Main Currents in Psychological Thought, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), pp. 209-13.

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