Reading 6

This passage is taken from a book titled Welcome to Your Brain by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang (© 2008 by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang).

  1. If you want to see what happens
  2. when the brain goes out of whack,
  3. please don’t go to the movies.
  4. Movie characters are continually
  5. getting themselves into
  6. neurological “scrapes“, losing
  7. their memories, changing
  8. personalities, and getting
  9. schizophrenia or Parkinson’s
  10. disease (not to mention sociopathy
  11. and other psychiatric disorders).
  12. The brain goes haywire in
  13. Hollywood far more often than in
  14. real life, and sometimes it can be
  15. hard to tell science from science
  16. fiction. Movie depictions of mental
  17. disorders span the spectrum from
  18. mostly accurate to totally wrong.
  19. At their worst, movie depictions
  20. of neurological illness can
  21. reinforce common, but wrong,
  22. ideas about how the brain works.
  23. By far the most common mental
  24. disorder in the movies is amnesia.
  25. Memory loss in the movies
  26. constitutes its own genre, as
  27. predictable as boy meets girl,
  28. boy loses girl, and boy gets girl
  29. back. But instead of losing a love
  30. interest, the thing lost might
  31. instead be, to pick an example,
  32. the awareness that one is a
  33. trained assassin, as in
  34. The Bourne Identity (2002) or
  35. Total Recall (1990).
  36. Neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale
  37. conducted an extensive survey
  38. of memory loss in the movies,
  39. going all the way back to the
  40. silent era. She sorted incidents
  41. into categories, most of which are
  42. filled with wrong science but all
  43. of which are entertaining.
  44. A common dramatic theme is
  45. a physical trauma that triggers
  46. memory loss, typically followed
  47. by a new start of some kind.
  48. Our hero or heroine then has a
  49. series of adventures and
  50. misadventures, but is able to live
  51. normally and form new memories.
  52. Another common cause of amnesia
  53. in the movies is a psychologically
  54. traumatic event. These events,
  55. which satisfy the dramatic need
  56. to drive the plot, include anything
  57. from killing someone to getting
  58. married. As a final twist, a
  59. character might regain his or
  60. her memory by getting whacked
  61. in the head a second time, or
  62. through a brilliant act of
  63. neurosurgery, hypnosis, or
  64. the sight of a significant and
  65. well-loved object from the past.
  66. Roll credits.
  67. Perhaps we have unfairly
  68. mocked these depictions of
  69. memory loss. After all, psychiatric
  70. disorders show more diverse
  71. symptoms than the strictly
  72. neurological disorders stemming
  73. from physical injury or disease.
  74. For instance, a psychiatric patient
  75. might show selective amnesia in
  76. very specialized ways. Also,
  77. transient memory loss is known
  78. to occur spontaneously,
  79. possibly because of miniature
  80. stroke-like events.
  81. But Hollywood usually tells us
  82. that the memory loss started
  83. with an injury or traumatic event,
  84. and in this regard the targets of
  85. our criticism are fair game.
  86. Cinema may be ripe for scientific
  87. criticism, but it does provide
  88. insight into how people think the
  89. brain works.
  90. A conceptual underpinning to
  91. many cinematic misconceptions is
  92. an idea we will call
  93. “brains are like old televisions.”
  94. Consider a common dramatic
  95. convention: after a blow to the
  96. head induces memory loss,
  97. memory can be restored by a
  98. second blow to the head.
  99. The existence of this myth points
  100. to unspoken assumptions
  101. we make about how the
  102. brain works. For the second-blow
  103. hypothesis to be true, damage to
  104. the brain would have to
  105. be reversible. Since the likeliest
  106. cause of amnesia from a head
  107. injury would be a fluid
  108. accumulation that pushes on the
  109. brain, a therapeutic benefit from
  110. a second injury would be pretty
  111. unlikely, to say the least.