2001: A Space Odyssey has several scenes showing a character doing mundane activities.

  • A flight attendant walks down an aisle to retrieve a floating pen.
  • Heywood Floyd is reading the instructions for the zero gravity toilet.
  • Heywood Floyd is eating sandwiches while traveling over the lunar surface on the way to the Monolith.
  • David Bowman and Frank Poole are eating dinner.
  • Frank Poole is jogging around in a big circle.
  • Long slow shots of spaceship moving slowly past the camera.

You can remove these scenes or shrink them and still get the same movie. They do show camera techniques and allow the audience to imagine outer space travel, but it's possible to do that with shorter scenes.

Why did Stanley Kubrick include those scenes? Or why did he allow them to take so much screen time?

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    I don't know if you have read Moby Dick, the "action" is present only in the two, three final chapters, and could be summarized in "Captain Ahab tries to kill the whale but ends killed himself". But if you take off the rest of "unnecessary" parts, you don't end with the same book, you started with a masterpiece and ended with, well, nothing of value. All the book sets the mood, the context and the themes where those final chapters could fully acquire their meaning. And the same could be said for any movie, Kubrick's one in particular. – Sekhemty Nov 19 '17 at 8:52
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    The original German series of "Das Boot" runs for 6h 9min instead of 2h 29min (which was still much for a movie). If you see only the movie version, you get a completely distorted image that being in an U-Boot is pure action. The series gives a much more correct image, das Gammeln (laze around) around the patrol point, weeks and weeks happening nothing at all, the endless waiting for a mission, missing messages from befriended crews, the boat gets filthy, the crew looking like scarecrows, boredom and aggression and finally lethargy. It also gives a much better image of the characters. – Thorsten S. Nov 19 '17 at 18:18
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    I think it was Werner Herzog who said something along the lines of: Slowing down the action makes things less & less stimulating, until eventually, they become boring. But then if you slow down the action even more, something unexpected happens. The stimulation sort of comes out of the other side of boring, and starts to become enthralling again - albeit this is now a very different sort of stimulation. Certainly that was my personal experience with 2001. A lot of those slow, drawn out scenes with no dialog absolutely thrilled me, and haunted me for years. – Jonathan Hartley Nov 19 '17 at 19:00
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    Movies are not fibre optic plot delivery cables; you can’t fully assess them by measuring how quickly they transmit narrative events into your brain. – Paul D. Waite Nov 20 '17 at 8:47
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    You can remove these scenes or shrink them and still get the same movie. And you can easily just cut from 'I will take the Ring to Mordor!' to 'I'm glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee!'. A movie is not just about A and B. It's about getting from A to B, and the ride the audience takes along the way. – CGriffin Nov 20 '17 at 14:29

11 Answers 11

up vote 112 down vote accepted

The job of the director is to make the viewer truly feel the characters' situation. I believe he did that, and quite masterfully too.

The truth is - space exploration is slow, brain meltingly slow ...there's really not much to do for most of the time. After a while, there's nothing to talk about other than petty operational concerns.

The crew just drudge through their painful existence, monitoring the same old operational concerns for months on end until none of it has meaning. The conversation stops, seconds lengthen into an abyss of solitude and any minutia is seized upon as the brain desperately seeks distraction.

Now, how would YOU film that?

Did the movie make you feel bored? Did you feel it just seemed to drag on and on painfully slowly with little of note happening? Good! You were supposed to!

When he reads the instructions for the toilet... were you just HOPING that this was finally some plot device, something was about to happen? Were you agonised that it was, yet again, nothing significant.

Well, welcome to the crew's life! Any tiny bit of new stimulus, however banal, is explored to its limit as the brain seeks out ways to entertain itself. Even the toilet instructions become worth a second or third read.

Kubrick captured the mood perfectly!

If you think a couple of hours of low-stimulus activity was difficult to sit through, imagine months or even years of it... the slow gnawing boredom and creeping insanity of life in space.

If he'd have made it an action movie, he'd have betrayed his audience...

... you'd have left understanding nothing of his characters' world : )

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    This is actually the correct reasoning, without getting into subjective arguments of good directing. – Z. Cochrane Nov 19 '17 at 21:04
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    "were you just HOPING that this was finally some plot device, something was about to happen" No. I was a kid and this was all both mind-blowing and completely incomprehensible. Postcards from the future, brought to you in a LSD-spiked envelope. Remember: this was the future (and I fully expect Dr. Heywood Floyd to appear in this movie and make a demonstration). – David Tonhofer Nov 19 '17 at 21:28
  • Gddam... I've just joined and can't post my own answer. Just about every answer here is excellent... but I also have to add that Kubrick's attention to the "illusion" of "being really there" was positively obsessive with this movie. I maintain that a lot of these scenes were in fact (partly, not entirely) to show how far cinematic illusion could really go... I've read things about how he superimposed pictures of people moving about on to the picture of a little plastic model of a space station spinning. Amazing stuff, before the digital era. Coupel of points: I find the sandwich-eating – mike rodent Nov 23 '17 at 20:44
  • scene (when they're going to the "Monolith" on the moon) really dull... on a fifth or sixth viewing it's made me think, God this is really boring. The other thing is Rigsby, AKA the so-called Russian, played by Leonard Rossiter, on the space station. All theatre and cinema is about suspension of disbelief, and somehow at that point... Errrr... Miss Johhhnes.... – mike rodent Nov 23 '17 at 20:47
  • While these scenes may seek to portray the slow life of the crew, you are making a mistake in equating the portrayal or boredom with actually making the audience bored. For myself, I don't feel boredom watching these scenes - i think they're beautifully done, and the movie is one of my top favorites for every minute of it. The reason this movie can be so boring to contemporary viewers likely has more to do with changing cinematography trends. Today's movies often break themselves up into frantically short scenes - which can make this movie a tough one to watch for some viewers. – Misha R Nov 26 '17 at 16:59

You can remove these scenes or shrink them and still get the same movie

No, you can't.

The pacing and mood of the movie depend on scenes having the right pace and structure. These scene contribute exactly what they're supposed to: they help maintain and set a mood. They frame the characters behavior and personae. They establish the norm for the scenarios which in turn helps establish what is out of the ordinary for this scenario.

You're also not allowing for the time the movie was made. These were extraordinary scenes for the years the movie was made - astonishing levels of realism and detail. There had been nothing like them before that and they were basically worth the price of admission on their own.

You are, I think, looking at this movie in the context of modern cinema techniques. Modern movies tend to include a lot of extremely fast cuts and few writers or directors or producers are willing to invest in slow paced movies, not least because they're not what modern audiences are adapted to.

But Kubrick made many movies in this way - slow, subtle pacing, and astonishing attention to detail.

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    "few writers or directors or producers are willing to invest in slow paced movies, not least because they're not what modern audiences are adapted to." because... movie (and TV) writers and directors have trained audiences to have picosecond attention spans. – RonJohn Nov 19 '17 at 17:03
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    @ronjohn I have to say that the internet generation have a particular sense of entitlement or need to be constantly fed new version of everything. I don't think you can lay that at the doors of writers and directors - they'r really just doing what they have to to get their work seen and heard. I'm not sure 2001 would ever get made nowadays - management and marketing would probably suffocate it at birth. – StephenG Nov 19 '17 at 17:18
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    @StephenG this trend started long before the beginning of Internet popularity. – RonJohn Nov 19 '17 at 17:22
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    I miss those movies. Today, when you sneeze, you find yourself in a totally different place – PlasmaHH Nov 19 '17 at 19:49
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    Slow-paced SFF films do still exist: Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive, Arrival, The Martian, Blade Runner 2049, and Interstellar all come to mind. (All of these films have divided opinions, but they certainly do not have the Michael Bay approach of frenetic jump cuts and non-stop action.) – Royal Canadian Bandit Nov 20 '17 at 11:23

The scenes that you have mentioned in 2001 represent common motifs that can be found in all of Kubrick's movies. Yes, the story of 2001 can be told without them, but at the cost of meaning that can be found throughout his movies, as well as a his artistic vision.

  • A flight attendant walks down an aisle to retrieve a floating pen.
  • Frank Poole is jogging around in a big circle.

Are examples of one-point perspectives that he used throughout his films: Vimeo. That video is quite jarring, but I think serves its purpose better than me linking to every slow hallway/walking scene that I can find.

  • Heywood Floyd is reading the instructions for the zero gravity toilet.

Kubrick included many bathroom scenes in his movies. In modern society, a bathroom is a place of privacy; it is a sanctuary of sorts. Kubrick used bathrooms to invoke an intimacy with characters, and we learn about them in ways that we can not if they were in a public place. Kubrick and bathrooms

  • Heywood Floyd is eating sandwiches while traveling over the lunar surface on the way to the Monolith.
  • David Bowman and Frank Poole are eating dinner.

Kubrick uses food to represent life. In the case of 2001, he's also speaking to humanity's drive for technology. We see the apes foraging, then eating meat, and then modern humans eating synthetic food. By including this, Kubrick is speaking to the idea that technology removes us from what makes us alive in the first place.

In conclusion, Kubrick's movies have gone under a lot of examination because of scenes like these. Mostly because Kubrick has confirmed that his movies have more meaning than appears on the surface.

At most extreme, people say that Kubrick directed the faking of the moon landing, that the shots in 2001 exemplify the technique used to make a movie look like it was filmed on another planet, and that The Shining was Kubrick coming to terms with this secret. I only mention this as to give you an idea about the fervor gone into researching his movies.

At the very least, we can say that Kubrick enjoyed shooting films in this way, just as Wes Anderson's use of symmetry.

Kubrick was a master of detail, especially 'throwaway detail', subtle elements that are difficult to implement and only seen briefly. The jogging scene, for example, required a rotating set to be built, yet it was only fully used once in the film. The scene in the space station with the Russians required a curved set to be built, considerably more expensive than a flat set, and that was used only briefly. This emphasized the fact that the occupants were in a giant rotating station.

This was groundbreaking in 1968 - most films previously had fudged on details like that, for budgetary reasons. Having the Russians interacting with Americans at the height of the cold war was a nice touch, emphasizing a better future.

Not relevant to your question, but I still find the space scenes far more realistic than today's CGI. This brings up another technique Kubrick used for the exterior space shots - the stark white/black, and absence of any backlighting of shadows. That was later seen in photos brought back from the moon, where the absence of an atmosphere meant no indirect lighting, and had the same stark, harsh look. Contrast that with the space scenes in Star Wars or Star Trek, where the ships are backlit. Then again, those films are pure fantasy focusing on action, whereas 2001 was striving to be as near factual as possible for its time.

The end result is to get the viewer to genuinely believe that they are in the situation being presented, not only making the familiar unfamiliar (curved rooms, no shadow backlighting, zero G toilet instructions), but doing it accurately. Even when only used briefly, the jogging scene and moon shuttle scene transport the viewer to a future time, especially if the viewer sees this from a 1968 knowledge base.

Kubrick must have had quite a battle with the financers of the film to get those details put in.

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    To emphasize a point that I think is implicit in this answer: the cited scenes serve to "make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar". Dropping a pen is a perfectly ordinary thing, having it float away is not, jogging is a normal activity but we don't usually jog around the inside of the rim of a rotating space station. By including these scenes, Kubrick neatly places us in a world where space travel is a normal occurrence. – Jon Kiparsky Nov 20 '17 at 6:07
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    It should be noted that man would first set foot on the moon in the year after this film came out, and the treaty banning the militarization of space was signed the year before; Space was something utterly new, fascinating and terrifying. The sense of simultaneous wonder and dread of space in that time is hard for us to understand today. – errantlinguist Nov 21 '17 at 7:54

The scenes you refer to are deliberately slow and feature mundane activities. To quote from the sf-encyclopedia.com entry on the film

"The idea of human deficiency in the twenty-first century is reinforced by the deliberate banality of the dialogue and the sterility of the settings; ironically the most "human" character is a neurotic computer"

The bottom line is that this is not an optimistic film and the representations of humans and our activities in it show us to be still not so far from the apes at the start of the film. We eat to survive. We can travel in space but still have to use the toilet. We are utterly insignificant compared to to the size of the universe.

A further factor in the slow pacing of the film can be attributed to the unusual scripting and development process. The book The Lost Worlds of 2001 by Arthur C Clarke discusses the creation of the story at great length but again the article on sf-encyclopedia.com gives a good insight. To quote...

"The resulting script drafts were very strange, and barely cinematic in any recognizable sense; the film was written around heavy Clarkean voiceover narration throughout, only for Kubrick to strip this entirely out during a frenzied last-minute editing period in the three weeks before the press screening. This bold eleventh-hour dismantling of the diegetic scaffolding is the source of the film's eerie narrative obliquity. (Even such dialogue as remained in the Discovery sequence was largely unscripted, and devised on set between Kubrick and the actors.)"

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    still +1, but I would not say "human deficiency". It is humans still being humans. We often confuse technological advances (which are large over, say, a thousand years) with human's advances, (which are barely none over the same time span - like it or not) – Rolazaro Azeveires Nov 20 '17 at 11:37
  • I'd love to watch with the voiceover, that would be different. I can't see any evidence of it still existing though. – Jeremy French Nov 22 '17 at 11:21

Most of these are classic examples of "show, don't tell".

Pretty much everyone has been in a plane, so we're used to that. What's different between that and a space shuttle? Here's an example. For the people involved, it's a trivial moment. But for us as people who aren't taking space shuttles, it shows something we've never seen ourselves - and more than that, it shows that something we've never seen ourselves is a trivial moment for them.

This is particularly significant for sci-fi and fantasy. If you think back to early sci-fi and fantasy, like Frankenstein or H. G. Wells, they all contain a large amount of exposition. Sometimes this is achieved by the device of one character telling another character something, but often it is simply a God's-eye-view narration. By the 60s, authors such as Zelazny, Heinlein and Herbert were bringing this more in line with modern writing and following the "show, don't tell" ethos. This requires the reader to be more "active", in the sense that the reader is required to pick up these details about the world in passing, and also to accept that some things may not be immediately explained when they first appear but will be picked up later.

Clarke's work is very much old-fashioned in this regard though, being full of exposition. His concepts are brilliant, but his writing style much less so (according to Robert Silverberg, not just my opinion!).

Kubrick's work though epitomises "show, don't tell". Plenty of war films have featured training camps, but Full Metal Jacket spent a large section of the film there to show how the soldiers became dehumanised, and knowing that all the characters have been through this process is key to understanding their responses to the second half set in Vietnam. And similarly in 2001, all these scenes show what it's like to be actually living in this world, not just skipping ahead to the big set-pieces.

  • "Pretty much everyone has been in a plane, so we're used to that." Today, yes, probably (at least if you're limiting yourself to a likely audience for a sci-fi movie). But in the mid-1960s? Maybe... – a CVn Nov 24 '17 at 8:17
  • @MichaelKjörling Package holidays took off in a huge way in Europe in the 1960s, and Britain and Germany in particular. By 1968, even if you hadn't been abroad on holiday, many of your friends would have been. Meantime in the US, airlines were the most efficient way to travel long distances and passenger trains were well into their long decline. You're right that this wasn't the case globally, but for English-speaking audiences (i.e. the US, Canada and Britain) it's broadly true. – Graham Nov 24 '17 at 10:57
  • Right. I knew it was around that time, but wasn't sure of the exact time frame involved, hence the "maybe" in my first comment. What you say sounds reasonable. – a CVn Nov 24 '17 at 12:07

They are there to emphasize the point, that humanity has reached a dead-end in their evolution.

The big underlying message behind 2001 is that space travel is the next big step in the evolution of humanity. A step that is as big as the initial discovery of using tools was to the first cavemen (illustrated in the film's prologue).

In the story of the film however, humanity is not able to make this evolutionary jump by itself. It is guided by an outside influence, represented by the monolith. The cavemen only discover the usage of tools after the appearance of the monolith. The monolith on the moon serves as a sentinel, a guard that will notify whoever put it there that humans are now capable of travelling through space. This marks the starting of the next evolutionary jump for humanity: the star-child form that Bowman takes at the end of the movie. As with the cavemen before, this evolution does not happen by itself, but is guarded by an outside influence.

The open question here is now: Why do we need that help from the outside? Is humanity in its current form really that unfit for space travel? All those small scenes are examples for why this is indeed the case:

  • A flight attendant walks down an aisle to retrieve a floating pen. - Humans cannot even walk in space. Evne the simplest movements are painfully slow and complicated in an environment which has no gravity. Also, humanity's tools, which got them from cavemen to this point, are largely useless in space (the floating pen).

  • Heywood Floyd is reading the instructions for the zero gravity toilet. - Another example why lack of gravity is a problem. What would be a trivial task on earth creates tremendous challenges in space. Yet, it's still a necessity, because humans have to poop.

  • Heywood Floyd is eating sandwiches while traveling over the lunar surface on the way to the Monolith. & David Bowman and Frank Poole are eating dinner. - Notice that they are not eating ordinary food in those scenes: They are eating space food. Finding food was a huge problem for the cavemen. They were practically starving before they learned how to kill animals in the prologue. They now face a similar situation because finding food in space is hard.

  • Frank Poole is jogging around in a big circle. - Human muscles need constant exercise. If Frank wouldn't exercise regularly, his muscles would deteriorate and he would get serious health problems after some months in space. Again, running around in circles is necessary for him, because his body is not made for living in space.

  • Long slow shots of spaceship moving slowly past the camera. - Spaceships are magnificently beautiful achievements of science. But they are still just really complicated tools. Flying through space in a spaceship is a ridiculously complex process and one that brings humanity's ability to build tools to its limits. Imagine how much easier it would be if everyone just lived in a giant floating bubble in space. Space travel would become a mundane triviality, instead of this complex ballet of technology.

Almost every single shot in 2001 emphasizes this point. If humanity is to truly succeed in travelling through space, maybe that means it needs to evolve into some entirely different species, that is better adapted to that environment. And that species would certainly be as different from a modern human as a modern human is from the early cavemen.

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  • "Also, humanity's tools, which got them from cavemen to this point, are largely useless in space (the floating pen)." Um, sorry, but no. Pens can work just fine in space with little or no outwardly visible difference. There is little reason why a "space pen" couldn't look very similar to an "Earth pen" or a "moon pen", and there's no reason why a "space pen" couldn't work on the Earth or the Moon. As what appears to be an experienced space traveller, Floyd would surely prefer to bring writing utensils which would also work in the in-transit freefall/"zero-gravity" environment. – a CVn Nov 24 '17 at 8:27
  • @MichaelKjörling The point here is not so much about the pens not being able to write in space (I agree that Floyd would probably bring a space pen) but how it floats away from his hand when he goes to sleep. The pen goes out of control as soon as Floyd lets go of it and if it weren't for the stewardess who rescues it and clips it back to Floyd's clothes, it might float to god-knows-where. – ComicSansMS Nov 24 '17 at 10:40
  • "but how it floats away from his hand when he goes to sleep" Right, I definitely agree with that much. Extended freefall environment is rather unnatural for most people. It's a pretty big leap from that, though, to claiming that existing tools would be "largely useless in space", especially when using the pen as the only example to illustrate the point being made. Maybe that example could be improved simply by incorporating one or two additional examples of how common Earth-bound tools would be useless in space, as depicted in the movie? – a CVn Nov 24 '17 at 12:05
  • @MichaelKjörling The obvious example here is of course HAL. The most complex and advanced of all tools in the film and reliance on him costs most of the members of the Jupiter mission their lives. Ironically, Bowman in the end is able to defeat him by using the most simple of tools: A screwdriver. – ComicSansMS Nov 24 '17 at 14:08

Let us not forget that this is a movie of a book. "The Greatest Science Fiction Novel of All Times and Our Time – 'Dazzling' — Time." This statement appears on the cover of 2001.

Arthur C Clarke was a scientist and a prescient author of his time. He provided a lot of scientific detail in his books which, although fictional, were at the same time grounded in good contemporary knowledge. Indeed his later works, 2010, 2061 and 3001 he described as existing not in the same universe, but in a parallel universe into which he wove the new scientific knowledge which had been discovered in between his novels.

His writing is not just for entertainment. His style of fiction is a vehicle for informing, teaching, enthralling and inspiring his audience to believe that anything within the grasp of human imagination is possible with good science and engineering. He didn't just describe a super-computer which had gained consciousness, he used the opportunity to theorize about how it might be constructed and to explore the nature of consciousness itself. The audience is compelled to ask if HAL was truly "alive", or was it just following a program?

This was evident throughout the book and many of the themes which he explored in his mind, Stanley Kubrick then brought to the screen. The Director and the Writer collaborated closely on many of these scenes to ensure scientific accuracy and to keep the audience actively thinking about the universe they were about to explore.

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    So Stanley included these scenes to ensure scientific accuracy? Is that what you're suggesting? The majority of this answer seems to be a ramble unrelated to the question at hand. May I suggest you edit your answer to make it's point more clear and to make it's attempt at answering the question at had more succinct. – Edlothiad Nov 20 '17 at 12:29
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    Actually, no. The book was developed concurrently with the film and released after the movie:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001:_A_Space_Odyssey_(novel) – Boluc Papuccuoglu Nov 20 '17 at 14:10

I'm a big fan of this film.

The "vision" Kubrick used for his future was greatly echoed in a series of Disney TV shows called "Man in Space" (or certainly the material they used as well) which preceded 2001 by over a decade.

Kubrick took many ideas from Von Braun's vision which was presented in the shows (eg: space wheel, design of the shuttle which takes them to the wheel, the Discovery One's "task shuttles" with the tooled hands)

But to the point about the floating pen - in the Disney show, during man's first flight into outer space (which is a cartoon), there is a sequence where they first become weightless. A pen floats in the cabin. It is then plucked out of the air. The comparison is unavoidable.

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    Can you provide a source that Kubrick took from Von Braun's vision? Does it say so in the show? – Edlothiad Nov 20 '17 at 19:14
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    @Edlothiad A source for these claims would be nice, but I think you are misreading - the show came first (by a decade) so the show itself surely wouldn't have said that Kubrick took ideas from it. – JLRishe Nov 22 '17 at 16:19

A flight attendant walks down an aisle to retrieve a floating pen.

I personally have not walked down an aisle to retrieve a floating pen.

As a lot of the other answers say, there's a lot going on in these scenes in terms of setting, pace, visual callbacks and reflections, but there's also the fact that what is mundane for that flight attendant is not mundane for us. It'd be quite extraordinary for most of us even today, and more so then. We don't get to see what is differently mundane for them unless we get to see what is mundane for them.

The importance of the inclusion and the pacing of these scenes lies in part with differences in the ways in which the right and left hemispheres of the brain organize and process information. A good overview of these differences can be found in the first half of Iain McGilchrist's book, The Master and His Emissary; or Robert Ornstein's The Right Mind. What we consider as our normal perception is heavily dominated by the left hemisphere which specializes in words, analysis, planning, logic. In particular, this is the hemisphere that enables us to focus in on a piece of the whole in order to achieve certain ends. The right hemisphere, by contrast, bring us the whole picture; it also facilitates the sense of felt or experienced connection to the whole. It conveys the meaning of an event, yet it also is vague by contrast with the input organized by the left hemisphere. The content and pacing of these scenes aimed to take the viewer far deeper into the experience of being in space, beyond the gravity and atmospheric envelop in which we live. As fun as Star Wars was (and it was fun), it stayed almost exclusively with the realm defined by the left hemisphere.

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    Do you have a source for this or is this just from observation and the result that you've come to? – Edlothiad Nov 20 '17 at 7:14
  • I've cited two sources for the information about how the hemispheres work. I also have an article due to be published in a journal early next year that expands upon this topic. – soulfulpsy Nov 20 '17 at 7:31
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    With regards to 2001: A Space Odyssey, or about the hemisphere's in general. I say your citations, I just meant more with regards to linking Stanley Kubrick's intentions to the difference of the two hemispheres. – Edlothiad Nov 20 '17 at 7:33
  • I have no idea if Kubrick knew about the differences in the ways in which the hemispheres function, but that doesn't much matter in the sense that as an artist he had to have a feel for the differences. Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation, used increasingly in psychotherapy, rests on the same discovery. The phenomenon has been there to be encountered long before neuroscience could offer its detailed explanation. My interest is one level deeper, namely the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead which actually described these two modes almost 90 years ago in Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. – soulfulpsy Nov 20 '17 at 8:02
  • The idea of the brain's hemisphere's having such different functions is now debunked, and like Star Wars belongs with fun ideas from the 1970s that don't have much basis in fact, though they perhaps remain a useful shorthand for intuitive versus analytical thinking. – Jon Hanna Nov 26 '17 at 16:49

protected by Edlothiad Nov 21 '17 at 14:57

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