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Study: Art Films Promote Theory of Mind Development

Milan, 26th May 2021 – Art films help develop Theory of Mind skills. This is what emerges from Emanuele Castano’s article published yesterday, 24 May, in the scientific journal ‘Humanities & Social Sciences Communications’, which combines literary and film theory in a study showing how art films, as opposed to Hollywood films, can help develop Theory of Mind (ToM) skills. The author reached this conclusion based on a survey of 232 people who were randomly asked to watch clips of Hollywood and art films and then to answer a series of questions. Those who watched art films scored higher on two different ToM tasks – the ‘Read the Mind in the Eyes Test’ and the ‘Moral Judgement Task’ – which is an immediate effect of the perceived complexity and predictability of the characters.

The ability to infer mental states – of oneself and others – is known as ‘mentalising’ or, more commonly, Theory of Mind. In its most basic form, ToM allows us to recognise that others have a mind different from our own, while in its most developed form it refers to the ability to accurately perceive the thoughts, intentions, emotions, beliefs and desires of others.

Underlying Castano’s study is the difference between Hollywood and art films. Hollywood films are plot-driven and their characters help the story unfold smoothly; plots follow well-defined patterns that make it easier for the viewer to understand the mental states of the characters: some of them exist to guide our understanding and are of minor importance (e.g. the villain in Bond films), while others refer to identities and social roles that we encounter in everyday life (e.g. accountants, ethnic minorities, religious groups). In contrast, art films focus on the inner lives of characters, making it more difficult to deduce their mental states. The aim of Castano’s study is to demonstrate that watching an art film induces a shift to a cognitive framework that emphasises ToM strategies, hypothesising that this effect, at least in part, may be due to the fact that characters in art films are more complex and less predictable than those in Hollywood films.

Compared to those who saw a Hollywood film, those who saw an art film scored higher on two measures of ToM: the RMET, which is based on visual information processing, and the MJS, which is based on the representation of actors in written narrative scenarios. The results of the experiment also showed that art film characters are perceived as less predictable than Hollywood characters.


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