Daniel Reynolds: Media studies and the mind

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | April 8, 2014

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Emory assistant professor of film and media studies and Humanistic Inquiry Program Fellow Daniel Reynolds. Emory Photo/Video.

When Daniel Reynolds observes a film or video game, he's seeing something much deeper than message, content and craft — connections far beyond what's conveyed upon a screen.

He's also seeing a world of biological possibilities. "When we're watching movies, I don't think we're just sitting back and soaking it in. I think it's working with us and we're working with it all the time," explains Reynolds, an assistant professor of film and media studies at Emory.

"I certainly want to look at form — what film and video games are like — but it's just as important to look at platforms, what the capacities are, what the controllers and conditions are like, the way those technologies make content possible, and how this works as an extension of our bodies, our minds, in a way that's extremely active and intimate," he says.

Since arriving at Emory in 2012 as a Humanistic Inquiry Program (HIP) Fellow, an appointment supported through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Reynolds has taught not only foundational film and media courses, but also classes such as "Platforms and Apparatuses," a signature course that probes the relationship between media content and media devices — inquiry that he's now developing into his first book.

In his fall 2013 course, Reynolds explored questions such as how cameras, projectors, game consoles, televisions, and distribution channels inflect the media that they make possible, how innovation in media form drives the development of media technology, and how those very technologies facilitate and constrain the creative endeavors of media makers.

But it's been through co-teaching an upper division undergraduate seminar on "Film and the Mind" with Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology, this semester that Reynolds has fully bridged the realms of humanities and the sciences — the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship supported by the HIP Mellon Grant that he finds deeply fulfilling.

Sponsored by Emory College's Center for Mind, Brain and Culture, the class melds film theory and psychology literature along with weekly film screenings, "and it's been an absolute blast," says Reynolds.

Navigating diverse interests

From the beginning of his own academic journey, Reynolds has been on a quest to pinpoint the intersection of his diverse interests. Growing up in Portland, Ore., he excelled in mathematics, but became "completely burned out with it at some point in high school."

When he made plans to attend the University of Oregon, his father, a physics professor at Portland's Reed College, suggested he might enjoy linguistics. Turns out, he was right.

"There is a school of linguistics on the West Coast, especially between Oregon and Berkeley, that emphasizes looking at language on a biological model and encourages looking at the relationship between language and the body," Reynolds recalls. "At the time, I didn't realize I was learning a particular kind of linguistics and a way of thinking about the mind."

After taking courses in film studies, Reynolds realized his linguistic philosophy of the mind was particularly well suited to talking about media. With that in mind, he would earn his masters degree in film studies from Boston University.

After graduating, "I ended up getting a job as a teaching assistant in the film studies department at Harvard, which had just started an undergraduate film studies major," he says. "Definitely the right place at the right time."

After spending two years teaching nearly five sections a term — he likens it to academic boot camp — Reynolds applied to a PhD program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where "there were a lot of faculty thinking about the mind and film."

Media and the mind

During his doctoral program, Reynolds honed his focus to new media and the mind.

"I was thinking not about why we use film or media but what using film does for us and what it does to us. In particular, how looking at media — including film, interactive media and video games— in a systematic and open, interpretive way can tell us about the mind," he says.

Reynolds thinks of any media as a tool that does something complex: "But if you look at a tool, it implies something about what it's for and who it's for. Look at a hammer, and you can derive a hand and an arm, for instance," he says.

"What I want to examine as an ongoing project is this: If we're looking at film and video games, what can it tell us about people's minds? It's almost an impression in relief."

In pursuit of that research question, Reynolds may have found the perfect generation of young scholars to work with.

"I grew up playing video games, but they're more pervasive now than they ever have been," he observes. "With today's students, the golden age of video games was already happening before they were born. They have a lifetime of experiencing it."

"They're so conversant with this medium and have seen it develop into something so very expressive, something that can be genuinely beautiful, that to have it treated seriously may be something like what a cinephile felt in the 1930s."

"For those who grew up and lived with it, it's profoundly meaningful," he adds.

Integrating the sciences and humanities

Reynolds views the interdisciplinary nature of his work not only as an intellectual academic proposition, but somewhat of a social one: "it's been a wonderful opportunity not only to see things from the perspective of a different discipline, but to reach out to colleagues across campus and the world."

As an HIP Fellow, he's grateful to be at a university that encourages stretching beyond academic boundaries to distill the answers to important research questions — even his HIP Fellowship search committee was interdisciplinary, he notes.

"The impressions people get from the world around them lead to behaviors and those behaviors make real changes in the world," he says. "A lot of that has to do with interpretation and feeling."

"So when we think about this interdisciplinary relationship between the sciences and the humanities, it's important to use the tools that the humanities have been developing for thousands of years," he adds, "In order to get a complete scientific picture of the mind, I think the sciences need the humanities."