Science is abused in a lot of Hollywood movies and TV, but perhaps none worse than neuroscience. Movies get it all wrong, from mental illness and brain damage, to psychoactive drugs, memory, and even how neuroscientists work. Here are twelve movies and shows that do the worst job representing the reality of the human brain.
This movie about a wonder drug that can make you ultra-smart by helping you use "100% of your brain" is completely bogus. The idea that you only use a small percentage of your brain is a myth that has been repeatedly debunked — except in Hollywood, apparently. You use 100% of your brain every day, all day. So a drug that allowed you to use 100% of your brain would have absolutely no effect on you whatsoever.
2. Side Effects
Where to start with this movie about a woman who takes anti-depressants and goes on a killing spree? Pretty much everything about it is wrong, starting with the idea that a psychiatrist is still able to continue treating this woman, even after she's sued him for prescribing the drug. Second, anti-depressants almost never cause violence. And finally, one segment of the film relies on the idea that placebos can't have exactly the same effect that drugs do, which simply isn't the case.
You might think the least scientific part of this mind-blowing film would be the dream-invading technology, which our characters use to steal ideas from the sleeping minds of their targets. But in fact, the main problem is that our brains simply couldn't concoct dreams that are as elaborate and detailed as what we see in the movie.
As the Telegraph's Tom Chivers puts it:
Your brain is not a 3D modelling suite. It can construct simple models, but if you, for instance, try to rotate a 3D image in your mind, you can only do a very basic job. It couldn't build, for example, a realistic model of a five-storey building complete with plumbing and realistic shattering glass. Even if you could, it is daft to think that, as you went to sleep, your mind would meticulously build a huge, accurate world, and then have it running in the background while your dream-self wanders off.
Basically, it would be far too energy-intensive for our brains to create dreams this detailed. On top of that, it would make no evolutionary sense for our brains to do that anyway — we simply don't need to devote that much brainpower to dreams.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
In this movie, our lovelorn hero goes to a clinic to erase the memories of his ex-girlfriend. The idea of using technology to erase memories isn't entirely implausible. But given everything we know about how the brain works, you can't selectively erase memories.
But the movie isn't entirely wrong about how memory works. As the neuroscientist who goes by Neurocritic put it to io9:
One incident in Eternal Sunshine is mildly suggestive of how memories might actually be stored. It was after Joel had his memories of Clementine erased, and he couldn't remember who Huckleberry Hound was. He had associated the cartoon character and the song "Darling Clementine" with her. That resembles a semantic network, where an overlapping network of neurons and synapses code different but semantically related things.
5. 50 First Dates
There are dozens of movies about weird memory glitches, but 50 First Dates is a good illustration of how wrong things can get. In it, Drew Barrymore has had an accident which gives her a fake kind of amnesia, called "Goldfield's Syndrome," which causes her to memories to reset to the day of her accident every day. (Cue romantic first date shenanigans.) It is possible for people to suffer amnesia, and even lose most of their memories, after a head injury. But nothing would cause you to re-lose those memories again every night.
The way amnesia from an injury usually works is more like the movie Memento, where the main character has tremendous difficulty forming new memories. In reality, amnesia from injury more often takes that form — you don't lose your past; you lose your present.
6. Walking Dead
One of the ways that representations of neuroscience can fail is in the way the science itself is depicted. MRI imagers (and pretty much any other brain imaging device) apparently have magical powers to discover pretty much anything. We could beat up on the show House for this for about a century, but instead let's zero in on a truly awful offender: there's an episode of The Walking Dead where we see an MRI scanner appears to display activity in individual neurons, which are turning black as each part of the brain is zombified. In reality, MRI scanners show regions of the brain and would never be able to show you activity in specific cells — let alone show them changing color or mutating in real time.
In this series, a secret corporation can remove people's personalities, store them on computers, and then download new personalities into the blank "doll" brains of our heroes.
No. You can't do any of these things. As the folks at Stanford's Neuroblog put it, "We can hardly delete a persons personality, much less load a new one, if we don’t know what generates personalities and conscious thought in the first place."
8. Star Trek: TNG: "The Game"
A common theme in bad neuroscience stories is a technology or drug that can cause braingasms, or the "ultimate pleasure," usually for the purpose of mind control. In the infamous Star Trek episode "The Game," an evil group takes over the Enterprise by giving everybody a videogame that shoots pleasure beams into people's eyes and makes them all lie around moaning in ecstasy. (Except Wesley, who saves the day.) But according to neuroscientists, there's really no evidence that something like this would be possible. The closest example might be a tiny handful of people who have become addicted to "self stimulating" with brain implants used for alleviating symptoms of Parkinson's disease. But there is no evidence that this could lead to mind control.
9. Source Code
The problems with this movie are similar to those we saw in Inception, but magnified a hundredfold. Our hero's mind is projected into that of a man who is about to die on a train — and he's able to use that man's mind to explore parts of the train and world around him that the man himself never saw in life. There's a bit of crazy timey-wimey here that's used to justify what's going on. But the fact is, you couldn't recreate an entire world from one person's individual memory.
10. Bourne Identity
Based on what we learned with 50 First Dates, we know that amnesia rarely works the way it does in this famous series about a super-agent who has lost his memory of who he was and what his missions entailed. You can't forget your entire identity and wake up with all your previous ninja skills intact. More likely if you'd suffered from an incredibly traumatic brain injury, you'd have a damaged short-term memory.
11. Fight Club
In Fight Club, a man develops dissociative identity disorder somewhat randomly as an adult, and spawns a double of himself. First of all, this is not usually how this kind of psychological disorder usually develops — in general, personality splits happen during childhood, often as a reaction to incredible psychological trauma. But the real kicker is that usually alter-egos are generally not violent. Indeed, alters often hold difficult or traumatic memories for the person who suffers from the disorder. So these alters aren't violent, but violated.
In this classic 1980s David Cronenberg movie, a group of evil scientists are sending a beam into the brains of people who watch violent pornography on an underground cable channel. This beam causes people to hallucinate and become ultra-violent (it also causes a hot sex scene with Debbie Harry, of course). Brain damage to the frontal cortex could actually cause all these symptoms — hallucinations, and violent, impulsive behavior. So you could imagine some kind of weapon that could cause injury to the frontal cortex and result in Debbie Harry wanting to have kinky sex with James Woods. But that beam could not come out of your TV set.
Bonus Weird Counter-Example!
Wait, what? How can Avatar have any kind of neuroscientific realism? When our hero plugs his neuro-ponytail into the brain of his flying steed, he's able to control it with his mind. Here we are seeing something that has actually been done (more crudely) in labs already. A recent experiment offered evidence that a human could control the movements of a rat's tail by connecting the human and rat brains via computer. So yes, one day, you might be controlling a flying steed on a distant moon using only the power of thought. Well, maybe you'll just be controlling a rat in a lab. But still.
That also means that there's a whiff of realism to the "Drift" that links two human minds together to control a giant robot in Pacific Rim, too.
Many thanks to Neuroskeptic, Neurocritic, and Maia Szalavitz for help with this article.
Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.