Spiers, a clinical neuropsychologist and associate psychology professor at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, critiques the way movies depict brain disorders on her website, NeuroPsyFi.com. The site dispels common “neuromyths” perpetuated by Hollywood (think of it as a scientist’s version of the film-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes).
Blockbusters, from the 2002 action thriller The Bourne Identity to last year’s Scarlett Johansson vehicle Lucy, reinforce pervading misconceptions about how the brain works. Still Alice, however, stands out as having done “a pretty good job” by providing a realistic portrayal of its main character’s early-onset dementia, says Spiers.
While she recognizes that most moviegoers aren’t looking for science lessons, films can nonetheless influence the public’s perceptions about brain disorders.
“Watching movies about neurological disorders, if they’re done well, I think gives people an appreciation for what the characters may go through,” she says, while films that promote stereotypes “can actually be a little bit more hurtful to people who have those disorders.”
Spiers has recently added a blog to NeuroPsyFi.com aimed at helping screenwriters with brain science, with the hope that neurological matters will be more accurately reflected on the silver screen.
For a cartoon about talking fish, this 2003 Disney film offers surprisingly solid insight about a neurological disorder. Supporting character Dory, voiced by comedian Ellen DeGeneres, suffers classic symptoms of anterograde amnesia, which is typically associated with damage to the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in encoding memories. Although it’s unclear how Dory developed amnesia, the portrayal of the condition is spot on. She has difficulty remembering names and retaining new information, but her condition doesn’t affect her sense of identity.
By contrast, Jason Bourne, the amnesiac main character of this action flick, exhibits no trouble with short-term memories, but wakes up after suffering an unspecified injury to the brain with no recollection of who he is.
“To me, it’s just a perfect example of the neuromyth,” Spiers says, explaining that the “double conk” myth – the idea that someone can lose their identity after being hit in the head and regain it after a second blow or psychological trigger – is actually a conflation of two ideas. While the most common type of amnesia that develops after a severe head injury is anterograde amnesia, individuals with this condition would not have trouble telling you who they are. Identity loss is more closely associated with psychogenic amnesia, an extremely rare and controversial diagnosis, whose origins, some experts believe, may be influenced by culture. With psychogenic amnesia, individuals are believed to suffer severe trauma or a series of severely traumatic events early in life, and suddenly block out their memories after a particularly stressful event. Because these cases are so rare, it’s not known what may bring their memories back, though a blow to the head is certainly not the recommended course of treatment.