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If Neuroscience in Science Fiction Films written by Sharon Packer is spotted on a bookshelf or webpage of a bookstore, the following questions may come to mind: Why do commentaries about specific motion pictures (in the form of either articles or books) continue to be written long after the time the pictures have been launched on screens around the world? Why do we find specific films so memorable that we want to see them more than once? Why are such movies referenced every so often and even included in the curriculum of undergraduate and graduate courses? Many critics have said that iconoclastic films are capable of capturing key aspects of past and/or present human existence so exquisitely to make such aspects both enigmatic and relatable. Alternatively, these films are said to be capable of envisioning events that foretell a future that we dread or one that we desire. In either scenario, these films display actions, cognitions (i.e., motives, thoughts, and feelings), and outcomes to which we can relate while they captivate our curiosity. If iconoclastic movies artfully portray real or purported aspects of human nature, what do books and commentaries add to them? Such narratives usually reflect two types of aims. On one side, some are accounts whose goal is to illustrate and analyze the culture or subculture of a society that is represented in specific movies or is allegedly responsible for having shaped their content. On the other side, narratives originate from the intent to apply theoretical models borrowed from the social, behavioral, and neural sciences to movies to enhance audiences' appreciation of the motives, choices, and actions of the characters they portray. The latter goal may range from an interpretation of the activities of characters based on a theoretical model to an assessment of the extent to which actions and events in a movie accurately represent the scientific findings and realities upon which the model relies. Of course, a conundrum arises when the theoretical model selected to offer an assessment and interpretation of the actions of movie characters is a theory of human nature whose reliance on scientific (i.e., objective) evidence and related testability are doubtful (e.g., the psychodynamic theory).
Important to note is that the efforts of professional organizations to make scientific knowledge more accessible to the public are beginning to reap rewards. A glance at the website of theAssociation for Psychological Science, including its blogs and news articles, or at the science section of the New York Times is sufficient to illustrate the current availability of scientific information to a large and diverse readership. Thus, if the role of a narrative is to call attention to the accuracy or inaccuracy of information purportedly scientific that is contained in each of a variety of popular movies, the reader may ask himself/herself whether the activity is futile since scientific information (including procedures, data, and analyses) is readily available from multiple reputable sources. Yet, the avalanche of materials that is accessible to the average reader furnished with a computer or a cell telephone and an internet connection may make reputable scientific evidence and methodology a little difficult to discern from other materials. Thus, the reader may actually benefit from a book or article that can dispel a false belief perpetuated in the story of a movie or attacked by it.
Of course, if the aim of books or articles about movies is not so much to identify their scientific correctness, but to illustrate the accuracy with which specific cultural norms and themes of a selected historical period are represented, the reader may find more than he/she desires in history books and webpages. Yet, books and articles on movies have the advantage of unifying the world of fiction and historical realities into a compact and easy to absorb form. Alternatively, if the aim is to focus on the minds and realities of those who have created a given movie, critically highlighting their perspectives often biased by culturally unique circumstances, then books and articles on movies may help the reader to note patterns that may not be so easy to detect without a deeper knowledge of the world of directors, producers, writers, actors and the time period of their existence.
Yet, irrespective of the specific aim of a book and/or article on movies, they all serve an overreaching purpose; that purpose is to present in accessible form information that may be available from multiple sources. Thus, they are often the equivalent of a review article in the scientific literature which combines multiple sources into a unified chronicle of one area of investigation. As perhaps only a few other books devoted to motion pictures do, Neuroscience in Science Fiction Films skillfully combines varied sources of information into a colorful and complex mosaic that illustrates not only the content, context, and roots of specific pictures, but also their value as conveyers of scientific information. Not surprisingly, its primary aim is to illustrate the extent to which selected films have captured past and current neuroscientific findings and interpretations or can be considered as forecasting future neuroscientific endeavors and, with any luck, their findings. The materials that pertain to this goal though are infused with astute illustrations of the cultural and societal norms and themes that have shaped the minds of those who have created and developed any of a number of iconoclastic movies. Although no intellectual product, including motion pictures, exists in a vacuum, and cultural and societal backgrounds serve to contextualize the scientific information that is depicted in a given movie, the best sections of Neuroscience in Science Fiction Films are really those that focus on scientific accuracy. Notable is the fact that readers need not fear unfamiliarity with certain classical movies. Packer always provides a detailed and engaging introduction to each key movie, including plot, main characters, and the cultural and social contexts that embed both.
Overall, Neuroscience in Science Fiction Films is an interesting and appealing read if one wants to delve into the bridge that links fiction and reality. An understanding of this bridge may not detract from the entertainment that a movie is purported to offer, but this very bridge may make science and its most respectable artifacts much more appealing. Indeed, movies may be an ideal vehicle not only to make science (and its essential ingredient: critical thinking) a household product for all of us to use, but also to remove its stereotypical labels, such as those portraying science as a cryptic enterprise and scientific findings as difficult to comprehend materials. Modest advice to readers who ask themselves whether Neuroscience in Science Fiction Films is to be read is to disregard the unfortunate illustration on the front page, bypass the preface and introductory notes, and begin immediately with the first chapter. A treasure of interesting information awaits the curious and committed reader!
© 2015 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Ashford University