This Is Your Brain on Culture

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Krzysztof Kieślowski and Correlation/ Causality

An experimenter's error becomes a filmmaker's success.

I really should have called this blog "Krzysztof Kieslowski and the mesolimbic dopaminergic system" but that just looked too formidable. Instead I'll write in English. The gist is that the films of this great filmmaker play into a system in our brains that finds causal relations in co-occurrences. I'll explain.

I've just finished watching (on DVD) Kieslowski's A Short Film about Killing (1988), a remarkable film which took the jury prize at Cannes in 1988. It begins with three unconnected characters wandering around Warsaw: a taxi driver, a young hooligan, and a tyro lawyer. In this part of the film we witness various events that seem to have no relation at all to one another. I wonder, what's going on here? As the film progresses, however, the hooligan strangles the cabbie and the lawyer ends up defending the young man and witnessing his hanging.

What seemed disconnected and random at first turns out to be tellingly interconnected. And this is Kieslowski's aesthetic: the incidentals of a shot, the people in the background, say, turn out to play crucial roles in the overall plot. For example, the ten segments of the magnificent Dekalog (1989-90) interconnect with episodes from one story turning up in another. The abortion in Dekalog II, for instance, becomes an ethics problem for the class in Dekalog VIII. A reappearing "witness" (is it Kieslowski himself?) links all the films. In the Three Colors trilogy, characters in the background in one film turn up in central roles in another. And all the central characters appear in the final scene in Red. Throughout the trilogy, key colors recur as does green in A Short Film about Killing. To try to recount all these interconnections would take a book and indeed there is such a book. Annette Insdorf details these interconnections—"echoes" she calls them—in her book on Kieslowski, and she spells many of them out in her excellent commentaries on the Kieslowski DVDs.

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These recurrences form the dominant element in Kieslowski's aesthetic. It is as though, behind the scattered happenings of our daily lives there is a hidden pattern. If you are religious, you might think of it as the "hand of God," or what is called in Christian writings, "Providence," an invisible hand guiding human affairs. If you are not religious, you might think of this as a delusion. This is the kind of thing that fuels conspiracy theories. Coincidences can't just be coincidences; somebody is rigging this.

Either way, Kieslowski's aesthetic acts out a basic pattern in our brains. Jaak Panksepp has identified what he calls the SEEKING system.  Panksepp points to a system that underlies all our other emotions (like Freud's libido); he calls it the SEEKING system. Basically, this is a dopaminergic system that responds automatically and unconditionally to information from the body like "I'm thirsty" or "I'm hungry." And this network also learns about things in the environment that predict satisfactions. It responds to stimuli that predict rewards, not to the rewards themselves. You can think of this system as a foraging system, the thing that makes a rat sniff around looking for goodies. The system is active all the time during the day and during REM sleep."The mammalian brain," writes Panksepp, "contains a ‘foraging/exploration/investigation/curiosity/interest/expectancy/SEEKING' system that leads organisms to eagerly pursue the fruits of their environment." Although at first without cognitive content, SEEKING translates correlations in environmental events into perceptions of causality. It gives us our drive to seek evidence for our hypotheses and to perceive the world as confirming our hypotheses.

One component of SEEKING is the mesolimbic dopaminergic system. It has to do with the feelings associated with this SEEKING behavior. The mesolimbic system originates in the midbrain—it's "meso"—and more specifically in the substantia nigra. The "limbic" in its name refers to the limbic system, where emotions originate. The mesolimbic system projects dopaminergically on through the nucleus accumbens and up into the limbic system. It produces that invigorated feeling, that sense of anticipation, that we have when we actively seek thrills and other rewards. Think of Freud's libido.

This system allows animals to become acquainted with the diverse configurations and rewards of their environments and thereby establish realistic and adaptive expectations. The brains of organisms try to make causal sense of the correlated events to which they are exposed. It leads animals to spontaneously behave as if cue-reward coincidences reflect causal relationships. In conditioning lab animals, the experimenter decides when and how rewards will be given, but the animal comes to believe its own behavior obtains the food pellet. Skinner, for example, described his pigeons as having "superstitions." This is exactly the feeling that Kieslowski is playing on.

Now, what happens in my mind when this artist acts out a brain pattern basic to all of us mammals? What does that do to my response? One answer would be that it strikes a responsive chord in us. "That feels right." Delusional it may be, but this aspect of Kieslowski's world rings true to me because it resonates and draws on processes in my own corticolimbic system. Rationally, I would dismiss these Kieslowskian connections as outrageous concidences. Finding some occult force in them is a delusion. But emotionally, they are resoundingly true because they coincide with the operations of a powerful system in my brain. Like Skinner's pigeons, I become superstitious. I feel as though some mysterious hand was guiding events. (It is, of course, Kieslowski's hand which functions like Skinner's, creating co-occurrences.)

Is this, then, how artists "impose" their visions on us? By simulating in their art systems that coincide with those already in our brains? I don't know, but it's a fascinating speculation. I'm curious to know what you out there think.

Writings I've referred to:

Alcaro, Antonio, Robert Huber, and Jaak Panksepp. 2007. "Behavioral Functions of the Mesolimbic Dopaminergic System: An Affective Neuroethological Perspective." Brain Research Reviews 5(2, December): 283-321.


Insdorf, Annette. 1999. Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. New York: Hyperion.


Panksepp, Jaak. 1998. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univerisity Press. 161-162.


Skinner, B. F. (1948). "`Superstition' in the pigeon." Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38: 168-1

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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