Lights, Camera, Action: The Brain In Film


It’s true that movies — and all art — is about what the artist intends and what the mind interprets. But films about the mind — the tricks it plays, the depths it sinks to and the feats it’s capable of — are guides to the zeitgeist of their era, as well as a window into the future.

For example, George Orwell’s book “1984” predicted fantastical concepts that are now commonplace (like “doublespeak”). Similarly, in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 “Minority Report” (based on the short story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick), the focus on a new justice system in which prophets (“precogs”) could predict when someone was thinking of committing a crime so that law enforcement could arrest them before the crime occurred, spoke to an existing fear that increasing technology would lead us to a police state with little free will. From “Frankenstein” in 1931 to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” in 1945, films — even when they are based on books — bring to life our best and worst moments in the mind.

Let’s take a look at some classic films about the mind, and what they say about society today.

“The Matrix” (1999)

The Wachowskis’ first “Matrix” (there were two less satisfying sequels) challenged reality and our place in it. Keanu Reeves, previously known for his roles in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and the surfer cult hit “Point Break,” plays a computer programmer who is searching for answers to the meaning of life. He believes there is more than the world around him — and he’s right. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) offers him a chance to find the true reality — as opposed to a computer program run by aliens that has created a manufactured reality that almost everyone else experiences while their bodies remain captive for alien food. “The Matrix” is a movie about freeing one’s mind and using its power to do everything from bend a spoon to dodge bullets in slow motion (also a film-making feat). Although “The Matrix” itself drew inspiration from everything from the Bible to “The Terminator,” it set the standard for “mind over matter” films for years to come.

“Being John Malkovich” (1999)

This is a movie about getting into your head — literally. Through a hole in an old building, the strangest thing is discovered: a portal to actor John Malkovich’s brain. Did you ever want to be a movie star? Well, now you can. Did you ever want to be dumped at the New Jersey Turnpike after you were done? Well, you don’t have a choice. Scripted by Charlie Kaufman, “Being John Malkovich” is a take on what it really means to see through someone else’s eyes and what it means to be an average person.

It also challenges the audience to consider what happens when you mess with the mind. For example, what if John Malkovich were to go through the portal and be in his own brain? He’d find a world where everyone looked like him (even women) and said the word Malkovich in different tones to mean different things. For Cameron Diaz’s character, it means a chance to consider her very sexuality, not just the power of celebrity. Being in a man’s brain, she suddenly finds women very appealing — and possibly always did.

Technology today would probably allow some experiences like those portrayed in “Being John Malkovich.” But the question is what are the ethical implications of controlling another’s mind? Should it be done at all?

As John Malkovich elegantly reminds a captor in the film: “It’s my head!”

“A Beautiful Mind” (2001)

Imagine if the very source of your being was betraying you. Such is the problem of John Nash (Russell Crowe), the Nobel Prize winner who invented economic game theory. He sees incredible mathematical patterns, many of them real, some not. As he ages, the latter grow in number, leaving him paralyzed to stop his mind from possibly destroying his marriage and his career. The film shows us his college roommate, a young girl and a government agent who convinces Nash to help him crack codes using his unusual gift for numbers.

The twist is that Nash is schizophrenic, and some of the characters, like some of his theories, are not real — not reality, but real to Nash. The brilliance of Ron Howard’s film is that the director show us Nash’s “reality” and helps us understand that the schizophrenic doesn’t choose his reality—what they see is as real to them as what we experience in our own lives. “We’re not just seeing how his brain works on a mathematical level, but we’re also seeing his delusions and accepting them as real,” said Bob Strauss, former film critic for the Los Angeles Daily News. “I don’t think I walked away knowing anything about his medical condition but they showed a very tricky and difficult condition in a good narrative way.”

The movie brought this mind condition to the forefront of society, but the real John Nash, who has overcome his mental illness but says his son has inherited it, told New Scientist magazine in 2004: “There’s a lot of choice in this, I think. I know this is not the standard point of view. The standard doctrine is that we are supposed to be non-stigmatic in terms of these people: They are constitutionally, necessarily, schizophrenic. But I think there is an element of choice. A person doesn’t pass into insanity when their situations are good. If their personal life is successful, people don’t become insane. When they’re not so happy, when things aren’t so good, then they may become clinically depressed, and then maybe schizophrenic. Wealthy people are less likely to become schizophrenic than people who are not wealthy.”

“Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” (2004)

One of the greatest aspects of the mind is its ability to remember. But what if your memory was your greatest source of pain? That’s the premise of Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” where the normally comedic Jim Carrey finds himself doing anything but laughing. Heartbroken, he decides to rid of himself of all memories of the girl he loved through a brain alteration — then midway through the operation suddenly realizes he doesn’t want to. His brain starts to fight back, showing him desperately holding on to memories from his past. The film, scripted by Charlie Kaufman, explores what we’d do if we only had the technology.

Although in 2004 it sounded absurd to erase memories, today, only six years later, scientists are doing similar experiments on rats. In an age where we can erase the appearance of aging or fat instantly with plastic surgery, can memory erasure be far behind?

Let “Eternal Sunshine” serve as a warning for us, so we should consider the memories we hated and whether we’d miss them when they’re gone — or if we really hated them so much in the first place.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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