Hollywood Should Give Brain Science a Star Turn

Hollywood Should Give Brain Science a Star Turn

Movies and TV shows frequently depict physical and biological sciences well, but often depict psychological and brain sciences poorly. Here’s why, and what we can do about it

"Oppenheimer" wins Best Picture at the 96th Annual Oscars.

Best Picture award for “Oppenheimer”.

Rich Polk/Variety via Getty Images

Oppenheimer’s success at the box office—and the Academy Awards—shows that scientific achievements can sparkle at the cinema. That’s good for science, where physics and biology have starring roles in hits ranging from Interstellar to the Jurassic Park franchise. But one key area of science often remains poorly depicted: neuroscience and psychology.

Consider that we are now more than a decade into the “era of the brain,” following President Barack Obama’s $5 billion BRAIN Initiative. A year after his announcement, instead of a Jurassic Park or Interstellar, we got Lucy, a film centered on one of the most persistent and frustrating of all brain myths—that we use only a small fraction of our brain.

The small screen also isn’t spared. Take one example close to our hearts—a 2023 episode of Paramount’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (“Among the Lotus Eaters”). After reaching a planet where some mysterious elements seem to systematically erase people’s memories, we find characters who can’t remember anything about their relationships or personal histories. They can’t even remember their own names. Despite this, everyone is remarkably calm. They quietly assist each other in establishing routines and relationships fresh every morning. But in reality, people who have lost touch with their own identities (for example, as a symptom of age-related diseases or strokes) find this loss highly distressing. Our sense of identity cannot be removed without cost.

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So why are people agog over Oppenheimer’s high scientific accuracy but barely shrug when Dumbledore’s Pensieve (memory bowl) in the Harry Potter series wrongly assumes that human memory is as accurate as a video recording? The discrepancy can be partly explained by how we perceive physics, as opposed to psychology. It’s easy to see the need to consult experts about complicated-sounding topics like nuclear physics and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). But people think of the behavioral sciences as intrinsically less complicated than the physical sciences, even if that’s not actually the case. We tend to assume that we’re already experts on how our mind works, relying on our unscientific intuitions—a sort of Dunning-Kruger effect for the mind, where we overestimate our expertise.

Also, myths about the brain and behavior are sticky. A lot of people still believe that we use only 10 percent of our brains (wrong), that we are either left- or right-brain learners (also wrong), or that you can learn to function with less sleep (a sleepy “nope”). Unfortunately, we tend to mistake familiarity for accuracy, so the more you hear a claim, the more likely you are to believe it—even if it’s false.

You might argue, these are just movies—they’re fictional and not meant to be taken so seriously! Can’t we tolerate a little unrealism in our entertainment?

Fair enough. We’re certainly not arguing that each moment of every movie or television show needs to reflect perfectly accurate and current science. But we are arguing that it matters when movies and television shows get things wrong—not just because filmmakers are missing opportunities to educate audiences about this branch of science, but because these portrayals powerfully shape public perceptions of how the mind works.

This may be especially true for stories that feature individuals who are neuroatypical. The movie Rain Man, which in 1988 featured Dustin Hoffman as a man with autism spectrum disorder, has become part of the public consciousness around autism, even though savant-level skills are relatively rare. The expectation that everyone on the spectrum will have a “cognitive superpower” has mental health costs. More recently, the folk horror movie Midsommar portrayed bipolar disorder as leading to homicide and suicide, but people with bipolar disorder are not more likely to commit violent crimes than anyone else. To take a different example, The Shining implied that having an imaginary companion is psychologically unhealthy. This portrayal led many to wrongly believe that this natural exercise of childhood imagination is genuinely harmful. Filmmakers have a responsibility to depict aspects of psychology and neuroscience accurately because these depictions can have long-lasting effects on the public’s understanding of these topics.

Luckily, it’s possible to make stories more scientifically accurate without any loss of drama or storytelling magic. It can even make these stories better. For example, the memory-erasing Star Trek episode did a good job of distinguishing episodic from procedural memories—that is, between memories related to one’s personal history and memories of how to perform a physical task. Characters with no knowledge of who they were could still do jobs they were trained for, such as engaging in hand-to-hand combat or piloting a starship. This mirrors the symptoms of patients with medial temporal lobe damage, which can impair episodic memory but spare procedural memory (as the latter is housed in the cerebellum, a separate part of the brain). The on-screen moments where characters displayed their skills despite their confusion about their identities were some of the most interesting and powerful scenes.

To guarantee more success stories like this, movie writers should invite more psychologists and neuroscientists into the writers’ room. We’re more than willing! For this reason, we have high hopes for the upcoming sequel to 2015’s Inside Out, a touching movie about how emotions shape development. Psychologists and neuroscientists were consultants on the original movie, allowing it to dive deeply into how these processes work. While unrealistic in some ways—like personifications of emotions using a control board to manage our reactions—this movie highlighted the role that emotions play in shaping our personalities as we grow up.

Standing in the way of this simple suggestion is a lack of guidance. Barely any episodes of PBS’s Science Goes to the Movies featured any aspect of psychological science. Nor does it receive any space in Lab Coats in Hollywood, a 2013 book detailing the interplay between moviemakers and their science advisors. But we’re hopeful that with increased behind-the-scenes interest from the movie producers and with expert advice, brain science will finally get its turn on the red carpet.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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