Regardless of whether Julianne Moore wins an Academy Award on Sunday for her starring role in Still Alice, the film gets an "A" for accuracy in Mary Spiers's books.
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.
Here, she offers her assessment of some popular movies:
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.
"Neurological amnesia is actually a problem of making new memories, so that's what we see in Dory to the extreme," Spiers says.
"It's just a small snapshot, but it's a good example of a very, very severe amnesia."
Spiers also recommends the 2000 crime film Memento as another example of how individuals may experience anterograde amnesia.
The Bourne 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.
This sci-fi action film relies on the conceit that humans only use 10 per cent of their brains. After its main character is given a drug that allows her to tap into the remaining 90 per cent, she develops superhuman abilities.
"I just throw up my hands when I see stuff like that," Spiers says. Sure, filmmakers may take artistic licence, she says, but the trouble is many people actually believe we only use a portion of our brains.
"I sort of say, 'What part of your brain would you be comfortable cutting out?'"
As one of the earliest major motion pictures about a character with autism spectrum disorder, this 1988 drama was well researched, Spiers says, noting that actor Dustin Hoffman spent a great deal of time learning about a real-life individual with the disorder.
"In that sense, it was a good portrayal of this particular guy," Spiers says, adding, "I think it was a good movie for its time."
But she notes that due to its success, the film may have inadvertently contributed to the stereotype of the autistic savant – the notion that people with autism excel in a specific area, which, in the case of Hoffman's character, involved dealing in numbers. In reality, Spiers says, this is very rare.
"Most people who are autistic don't have, sort of, genius in one area."