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Movies and Mental Health: Did This Year’s Oscar-Winning Films Portray Brain Disorders Accurately?

Theory_of_EverythingActress Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her starring role in the drama “Still Alice” at the 87th Academy Awards last night, but did the movie accurately depict early-onset dementia? Actor Eddie Redmayne also received one of the coveted gold statues, but was his portrayal of Stephen Hawking’s neurological disorder scientifically defensible in the biopic “The Theory of Everything”?

According to Mary Spiers, PhD, an associate psychology professor in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences and a clinical neuropsychologist, the answer – to both – is yes.

In fact, Spiers awarded both films a “Golden Brain Award” – her version of the Academy Awards – on her website, NeuroPsyFi.com, which critiques the way movies depict brain disorders. Other movies this year that portrayed brain disorders or special brain abilities included “Lucy” with Scarlett Johansson (cognitive enhancement), “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch (Asperger’s syndrome) and “St. Vincent” with Bill Murray (stroke).

Still_Alice_-_Movie_PosterThe goal of Spiers’ site, which is funded by a grant from the Association for Psychological Science’s Fund for Teaching and Public Understanding of Psychological Science, is to educate consumers, teachers and filmmakers about the brain science behind the movies. Through descriptions and peer-reviewed critiques by neuropsychologists, teachers and psychology students, the site dispels common “neuromyths” perpetuated by Hollywood.

From the action movie “The Bourne Identity” to the cartoon “Finding Nemo,” countless major motion pictures have been inspired by brain disorders.

“People generally find psychological disorders fascinating,” said Spiers. “Neuropsychological disorders, as a subset, are also captivating because we’re interested in how our minds work and what can happen if something goes wrong. We love stories and we’re interested to find out how people will cope, and hopefully, prevail. Even in a seemingly hopeless situation, as in the case of ‘Still Alice,’ when Moore’s character knows she will ultimately ‘lose herself’ to Alzheimer’s disease, we are looking for how to carry on and derive meaning from life when all memory of self is gone. Alternately, in the case of ‘The Theory of Everything’ we can also take a lesson from the incredible way that Stephen Hawking has prevailed and triumphed despite dealing with a devastating disease.”

Spiers believes that, while movies that accurately portray neurological disorders can help viewers empathize with those with the condition, those that are inaccurate can do more harm than good by perpetuating stereotypes.

The movie “The Imitation Game” is one example of a film that may be inadvertently contributing to the stereotype that people on the autism spectrum excel in one specific area, similar to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 drama “Rain Man.”The_Imitation_Game_poster

“The movie was based on the true story of Alan Turing, but falls back on the trope of the ‘math genius with Asperger’s syndrome,’” said Spiers. “However, there is much debate about whether Turing actually was on the autism spectrum. Some of the symptoms in the film seemed to me to be ‘pasted on’ rather than truly integrated into his character – the film seems to be more concerned with artistic license than with accuracy.”

As far as which movies portray brain science most accurately, Spiers cites the psychological thriller “Memento” (2000) as a prime example.

“[‘Memento’ director] Christopher Nolan’s brother got the idea from his general psychology class,” Spiers said. “The style of ‘Memento’ takes the audience into the head of a person with severe anterograde amnesia and so attempts to mimic the feeling of the disorder.”

As for TV shows, Spiers said that NBC’s “The Michael J. Fox Show,” which starred a person with Parkinson’s disease, was especially successful at dispelling myths and negative stereotypes.Memento_poster

A new initiative of Spiers’, her recently launched Writer’s Brain Lab Blog, aims to help writers of fiction and other film and TV industry professionals to portray brain science more accurately. While Spiers does believe that most writers are genuinely interested in trying to get the brain science correct, she claims that some sources are more reliable than others.

“Trolling the web is not the best way to be sure that one is developing a believable character or correctly interpreting how brain imaging should be used,” said Spiers. “Writers really need expert advice from psychologists. Our Writer’s Brain Lab Blog hopes to provide that forum.”

NeuroPsyFi.com also offers learning resources, including materials to help teachers link real psychological science to popular movies and TV shows.

Spiers started NeuroPsyFi.com in early 2013, inspired by the experience of using movie clips to illustrate points in her psychology courses.

“I started out with many of the amnesia films because there is a lot of fodder for discussion about memory and memory disorders,” said Spiers. “Students resonated with the idea of reviewing movies and examining the brain science behind them.”PAFF_0205015_NeuroPsyFi_newsfeature-300x250

“The website was an extension of the idea that people are curious about finding out what is accurate in fiction,” Spiers said. “When people watch a movie, they often want to know if memory actually works the way it is portrayed, or if a person with a neurological disorder like traumatic brain injury, would actually behave as the movie character acts. Our mission is to educate consumers and to encourage them to be curious about the portrayals of those with neurological disorders in movies, as well as the assertions about the brain.”

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking further with Spiers should contact Alex McKechnie at ahm62@drexel.edu or 215.895.2705.