Daliah Leslie – Brain Blogger http://brainblogger.com Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.6 The Hollywood Medical Reporter – The Martial Arts Kid http://brainblogger.com/2015/09/21/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-the-martial-arts-kid/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/09/21/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-the-martial-arts-kid/#respond Mon, 21 Sep 2015 23:02:44 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=20611 The Martial Arts Kid began as a Kickstarter campaign announced in 2014. After learning that two of the most iconic martial artists in the industry—11 time World Kickboxing Champion Don “The Dragon” Wilson and the “Queen of Marital Arts Films”, Cynthia Rothrock—would be teaming up, over 430 people pledged $173,486 to help bring this project to life.

Such action demonstrates to what extent this project was made by the people for the people. However, rather than spit out the expected, standard computer-generated action scenes, producers James Wilson and Cheryl Wheeler chose a different path, one with a sense of social consciousness. It’s an approach that makes The Martial Arts Kid an original film in its own right.

“We don’t tolerate bullies here.”

Cynthia Rothrock delivers this keynote line, which truly serves as the underlying message of this out-of-the-box, anti-bullying martial arts film.

Co-writer and director Michael Baumgarten’s film has powerful, albeit untraditional, scenes that reveal the film’s true purpose. After attending the sold-out premiere at the Burbank International Festival on September 12th The Martial Arts Kid is a clarion call to shine light on the epidemic of bullying.

Red Carpet Burbank Film Festival Premiere

This coming of age movie follows teenager Robbie Oakes (Jansen Panettiere). Abandoned by his father when he was born and having witnessed his mother die while trying to crossing the street, he lives with his grandmother in Cleveland, Ohio.

The film opens with Robbie in an intense chase-down with the police. As the cops handcuff him, Robbie pleads with his grandmother, promising her things will be different. However, this was the final straw. Robbie’s past has clearly helped brew a troubled young boy with deep-seated feelings of aggression that his grandmother can no longer control. As such, he is forced to move to Cocoa Beach, Florida, to live with his Aunt Cindy (Rothrock) and Uncle Glen (Wilson).

No sooner does he unpack his bags than he meets a cute girl, Rina (Kathryn Newton), and her a hot-tempered boyfriend, Bo Whitlaw (Matthew Ziff).

Matthew bullying face off 3 in film

Bo quickly makes it his mission to make Robbie’s life as brutal as possible: basic teasing, getting pushed into the girls’ bathroom, whispered promises of upcoming beatings while sitting behind Robbie in class, followed by the aforementioned beatings, and so on.

Bo behind Robbie in Class

Robbie learns that his uncle is a martial arts instructor and his aunt is one of his finest students and fellow instructors. At first, Uncle Glen won’t consider taking Robbie on as a student because at that point Robbie only demonstrates a selfish, lazy and uncontrolled anger. Glen explains that this is a dangerous trait in a martial artist trainee: revenge and anger are not what martial arts are about. However, after one too many run-ins with Bo, Robbie finally begins to demonstrate the caring and dedication his uncle needed to see. Uncle Glen explains to Robbie:

“Street fighters fight to force their will on others, but martial artists fight for only two reasons: to defend themselves or to defend others.”

Matthew Ziff, the runaway star of the film, who won Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Sunscreen Film Festival, summed up the point of martial arts as well as the film:

“It’s about respect and self-respect and not revenge.”

Matt Ziff Winning Best Supporting Actor at Screen

Ziff has trained in various forms of martial arts since he was 3 years old and believed strongly in the project, even before he was granted the part. In fact, despite his expansive athletic abilities and knowledge, Ziff understood that he had to assume a character, and that character looked nothing like he once did.

Matthew Ziff Before and After

Just like his physical transformation, Ziff takes on an entirely different persona, and truly becomes Bo Whitlaw. Sure, assuming a role and becoming a character is, by definition, the job of all actors. However, in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, viewers often see the actor just as much, if not more than they see the character the actor is playing in a given movie.

“Bullying” is no new dynamic. For decades, bullying behavior has plagued American schools. Traditional methods of dealing with bullying at schools, including detention, suspension and at times expulsion, have proved fairly ineffective.

In a 2008 study, psychologists of varying specialties evaluated the Gentle Warrior Program, a traditional martial arts-based intervention to reduce aggression in children. This specific study consisted of 254 children in grades 3, 4 and 5 as part of a larger school violence intervention. Some groups attempted to get the guardians and adults in the school to be more aware of the bullying problem in the hopes they may become more active in tending to and even preventing such behavior.

This study examined the effectiveness of martial arts training as one method of intervention that is well suited for changing behaviors and actions of children and young adults. Martial arts is characterized by a substantial emphasis on the psychological and spiritual, and has a goal towards non-aggressive behavior.

The Gentle Warrior Program attempts to, at least contribute to a shift in the overall social climate that has led and is currently still producing these aggressors in schools. Attempting to affect the overall consciousness of America (and the world at large) has the amazing possibility of shifting children’s understanding of how to deal with their emotions and subsequent actions. It offers students instruction in peace-promoting philosophy (non-aggressive attitudes, respect for self and others), self-protective techniques and problem-solving skills related to common bully-victim-bystander scenarios.

The results of the 2008 study revealed that boys who participated in more Gentle Warrior sessions reported a lower frequency of aggression and greater frequency of helpful by standing (i.e. proving helpful towards victims of bullying) over time, compared to boys with less frequent participation.

It is not a far reach to claim that The Martial Arts Kid movie is attempting the same basic goal. Both the Gentle Warrior program and the film preach non-violence, respect and empathy in an effort to change society. In other words, they attempt to spread the real philosophy of martial arts. Don Wilson said:

“We are very reluctant to get into behavioral problems as a society. We don’t because we think “oh it’s someone else’s responsibility”. But I think its everybody’s responsibility. An epidemic that’s widespread as this, we should as a group, and as our movie speaks to it, and addresses it, so we can realize that the problem exists and then we can realize ways as a society to fix it.”

The film’s title may make you think that The Martial Arts Kid is a rip-off of the 1984 classic. That would be a mistake.

The Martial Arts Kid is filled with legends and newbies, but nearly all share a common trait: they are all actually trained martial artists. This was particularly palpable in the rising star that is Matthew Ziff. Having begun modeling and acting from the age of three while holding a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, using the word rookie to describe anything about Ziff simply feels wrong. Unfortunately, experience and talent not yet noticed counts for nothing in Hollywood. That said, it was inspirational watching this up-and-comer on screen, literally going punch for punch with world-renowned grand masters and successfully holding his own with great poise.

That adds to the authenticity of the action for sure, but, more to the heart of this film, it assures a sincerity of purpose. Matthew Ziff explains:

“We’re not trying to throw a crane kick, we’re trying to show how someone would actually defend themselves in a real situation… we’re not trying to glorify martial arts, we’re trying to show it for what it is showing them we don’t have to take being bullied.”

The authenticity shines through and the truth about this amazing weapon against bullying, and the social responsibility inherent within this film is what makes this film truly so unique.

One example of how this film has already exceeded its own goals is the following story Cynthia told me:

“I got a message from a boy, that he saw the trailer and he can’t wait to see the movie because he’s been bullied and it gave him hope. After, I immediately sent an email to the producer saying this is what we want.”

Traditionz Entertainment debuted the independent film The Martial Arts Kid in select theaters and times from September 18th in Los Angeles and New York. It is expected to gain a wider distribution by other top markets including Chicago, Texas, Florida and Washington, DC.


Twemlow, S., Biggs, B., Nelson, T., Vernberg, E., Fonagy, P., & Twemlow, S. (2008). Effects of participation in a martial arts-based antibullying program in elementary schools Psychology in the Schools, 45 (10), 947-959 DOI: 10.1002/pits.20344

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Never Say Die – SELF/LESS from Science-Fiction to -Fact http://brainblogger.com/2015/07/10/never-say-die-selfless-from-science-fiction-to-fact/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/07/10/never-say-die-selfless-from-science-fiction-to-fact/#respond Fri, 10 Jul 2015 10:50:01 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=20170 In SELF/LESS, a dying old man (Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley) transfers his consciousness to the body of a healthy young man (Ryan Reynolds). If you’re into immortality, that’s pretty good product packaging, no?

But this thought-provoking psychological thriller also raises fundamental and felicitous ethical questions about extending life beyond its natural boundaries. Postulating the moral and ethical issues that surround mortality have long been defining characteristics of many notable stories within the sci-fi genre. In fact, the Mary Shelley’s age-old novel,  Frankenstein, while having little to no direct plot overlaps [with SELF/LESS], it is considered by many to be among the first examples of the science fiction genre.

Screenwriters and brothers David and Alex Pastor show the timelessness of society’s fascination with immortality. However, their exploration reflects a rapidly growing deviation from the tale’s derivation as it lies within traditional science fiction. This shift can be defined, on the most basic level as the genre losing it’s implied fictitious base. Sure, while we have yet to clone dinosaurs, many core elements of beloved past sic-fi films are growing well within our reach, if not in our present and every-day lives. From Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) to the Matrix Sentinal’s (1999) of our past science fiction films help define our current reality to Will Smith’s bionic arm in I, Robot.

The resulting script of the Pastor brother’s own creative take on the timeless theme, is what grabbed the industry’s attention, after first being ignored and eventually making The 2011 Black List: of best unproduced screenplays.

Director Tarsem Singh had been looking tirelessly for the right thriller and with SELF/LESS he found his match. The result of this collective vision is a great example of a genre’s journey from science-fiction to -fact.

Damian Hale (Kingsley) is a billionaire industrialist dying of cancer. Lucky for him, he hears of a procedure called “shedding,” a newfangled process by which one transfers his consciousness into a different body. Albright (Matthew Goode of THE GOOD WIFE) is the dangerously charismatic and brilliant mind behind the secret organization that, for a dozen million or so, can grant this gift of life to folks like Damian. Albright’s, never say die motto, is an offer hard to refuse and Damian certainly does not. While touring the mysterious medical facility, Albright tells Damian he will be receiving, “the very best of the human experience.” The new body (Reynolds) Albright describes as an “empty vessel,” whose sole purpose is to provide new life — to those who can afford it. Damian is sold.

SELFLESS scanner

Damian goes through his “shedding” procedure, which has a shockingly chilling realism, resembling a super fancy MRI machine. Upon awakening he finds himself in his new body to which he slowly adjusts, after getting over “that new body smell.”

Ryan Reynolds (in foreground) stars as Young Damian and BenKingsley (in background) stars as Damian Hale in Gramercy Pictures'provocative psychological science fiction thriller Self/less, directed byTarsem Singh and written by Alex Pastor & David Pastor.Credit: Alan Markfield / Gramercy Pictures

After a bit of time enjoying his healthy, attractive new body, Damian begins to experience what he is told is a harmless side-effect: hallucinations. What he sees in these episodes – a woman, a young girl, a home, a family – begin to all feel too real. Soon, Damian’s suspicions grow into certainty: these are not random hallucinations; they are images of a past that really happened. In other words, they are memories. But, if the new body was supposed to be an “empty vessel,” whose past is Damian remembering?

Without providing too much of a spoiler (but just in case…SPOILER ALERT!), Damian discovers that his new body was never an “empty vessel” created in a lab. In actuality, his new body had a whole life previous to the procedure. Soon the notion arises, both to Damian and to the viewer: does the life that once owned all these memories, does that man who once had a wife, daughter and an entire life, does he have the change to regain them?

This discovery leads SELF/LESS into the action film realm, which it does quite effectively, complete with shoot-outs, hand-to-hand combat, car chases and yes, even explosions. Like any really good works of science fiction, issues are packaged in an exciting plot buoyed by plausible — albeit futuristic — science.

This is among the reasons SELF/LESS works. It brings up many meaningful issues regarding science and immortality. If people can be saved from disease, age and death will this only be available to those wealthy enough to afford such a procedure? Would there be a selection process where only those deemed “superior” would be given eternal life?

And what would that mean to us all as a society? If Einstein were still alive today, would he have unified gravity with the other forces allowing us all to be traveling around in time machines by now? Would we be receiving iPhone44 by now if the consciousness of Steve Jobs could have been preserved in a healthy body.

The answer to how society may have been affected if anything had gone differently is a definitively impossible question to answer. However, the deeper question, I believe does hold an answer:

Is there an alternative to recycling the genius of the past, and those that we are currently familiar with? Or, can we allow for the possibility that a new genius, perhaps of a mind that will impact society beyond any realm we can currently fathom? Essentially, can we allow new, fresh perspectives in new, never before worn “vessels” to impact even if without the assurance of progress?

For the record I vote for the later. While I admit that is my opinion (as I admit to believing it the the only correct opinion) we must encourage ourselves to all ask these questions, and never be so presumptuous as to think one can ever be fully satisfied with the belief they have discovered every answer or postulated every notion.

Immortality has been the stuff of dreams (and movies and books and plays, etc.,) going far too back to define the exact origin, in addition to the aforementioned FRANKENSTEIN to DRACULA (1931), SLEEPER (1973), and even STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), in which Han Solo is frozen in Carbonite, all have their unique takes on this topic.

In real life, Dr. James Bedford, a psychology professor at the University of California, became the first person to ever be cryogenically preserved on January 12, 1967. He even left money for a steel capsule and liquid nitrogen in his will.

Many of us have heard stories, such as the urban legend that Walt Disney had himself frozen. (By the way, this happens to be only legend so if you were wondering, know it is false).

While there are the famous instances of the known few as well as the even more infamous myths, there have been far more real-life attempts at immortality than many may know of. Perhaps they have gone unnoticed because these events did not deal with world-renowned “geniuses” or hold great wealth and fame. I cannot say anything for certain, but I can share a personal note here.

My father’s cousin, back in 1968, well before I was born, was cryogenically frozen. Steven had been ill all his 25 years, had found an ad for the Cryogenics Society in a science fiction magazine, and, when he died on an operating table, had arranged to be preserved. I won’t go into the details here, but let’s just say it did not work out (turns out it’s pretty expensive to keep a human being frozen, and being frozen after you’ve already died kind of defeats the purpose). But the fact that it freezes a family’s hope that something may happen to bring their loved one back in the future can be more than just a bit cruel. However, the science behind the actions that, in this case proved exceedingly wrong, does not make the discovery behind the science inherently wrong. In fact it is because of this story I believe more than most, that we must engage, and ask questions now, discuss the ethical, moral and pragmatic ramifications now.

I had the opportunity to sit down with some of the cast and crew to discuss the film and some of the issues it raises.

David and Alex Pastor opened up about how their creative process can often be motivated by their own fears, wishes and predictions. David pointed out that the desires present in Damian are feelings that can resonate with everyone.

I feel that everybody can relate to ‘I wish I had more time’. We wanted to write about a powerful character who has everything but whose body is failing him and who then finds that his money might be able to buy him a new life.

Natalie Martinez, who plays Madeline, a crucial character to the story (sorry, can’t tell you why – you’ll have to see for yourself), told me how she enjoyed doing nearly all of her own stunts. I believed her too: she showed me her arm, pointing to her newest bruises accrued in her latest project, WARRIOR, where she plays a female mixed martial arts fighter.

The film made a wise decision in how it represented the technology at the core of the story. This was not a film intended to provide a lesson on the technologies of the future. The filmmakers chose NOT to pack the film with elaborate, made-up scientific explication. Other films, such as 2014’s LUCY, try using data from the real world to explain the premise of their stories, but this typically only shows a complete lack of faith in the film’s storytelling abilities. Thankfully, SELF/LESS doesn’t fall into that trap.

SELF/LESS makes no unnecessary attempt to have its lead character, Damian,, serve as an example of our collective scientific and technological potential. To do so would have been impractical distracting and ethically irresponsible filmmaking. When a film pretends its science is all actual right now — rather than a “science fiction” that takes off from a base facts — it seeks to have its audience believe in its story for reasons other than filmmaking craftsmanship. That leads to serious misconceptions about science. SELF/LESS, while based in scientific fact, doesn’t need to pretend immortality is a current reality: you believe its story anyway.

Dr. Charles Higgins, an associate Professor in of Neuroscience at the University of Arizona and head of the renowned Higgs Lab, when asked whether the concept of transferring one’s consciousness from one body to another is possible, replied:

It is sure to be science future [not fiction]. It’s just a question of whether it’s 30 years or 300 years.

When I asked David and Alex Pastor how they chose to balance the technological realities with their creative vision they responded that although the “key” to the plot and story is:

A revolutionary new technology, we decided we would not get bogged down in technicalities and would keep our story as more of a fable than anything else. It was the moral consequences that interested us. The science fiction that [they] like to write explores moral and ethical issue…ideas tied in to universal themes.

I agree and appreciated hearing that. Whenever a film can instigate thought and raise questions, the result is typically an effective film. But even more so when a film can do that, all within the confines of an action-packed thriller, demanding your visceral attention as well as your active, intellectual engagement. In the end, what makes SELF/LESS a self-aware, unselfish, ethical piece of effective entertainment is that they used action as a device to propel the moral and ethical questions.

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The Hollywood Medical Reporter – The Mind Behind “Brain Games” http://brainblogger.com/2015/03/08/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-the-mind-behind-brain-games/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/03/08/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-the-mind-behind-brain-games/#respond Sun, 08 Mar 2015 11:00:55 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=18909 This Emmy-nominated series tests the ultimate supercomputer – your brain. Back for its fifth season, Brain Games uses a host of interactive games, experiments and, yes, even magic tricks to expose and explain some of the most complex regions of the brain. We sat down with Executive Producer, Michael J. Kovnat, to discuss the truly mind-altering show.

BB: Can you share one thing you knew about the brain that made you want to work on this show, and one thing you’ve learned about the brain since you began work on it?

MK: I had heard that the brain is the most complex known structure in the universe – which had seemed hyperbolic. As I’ve dived into working on the show, I’ve come to appreciate what that means – and all the surprising ways our awareness arises from this three pound organ. As one example, our episode on color gets into how your subjective experience of red, green, etc. has to do with how your photoreceptors interact with other brain cells, and that system can be easily fooled and confused.

 BB: What can you tell us about the inception of Brain Games?

MK: The idea was to create a show that would invite the audience to play along with a series of perception experiments. Over time, that concept was refined by a number of very talented producers, writers, and executives.

BB: Can you share a bit about your background and how you eventually began working on this show?

MK: I’d been producing non-fiction television for about 20 years, and had developed a sub-specialty in science programming. When I was hired as a staff executive producer at Nat Geo Channel, Brain Games was already in its second season. It was the first project I lobbied to work on when I was hired.

BB: More than mindless entertainment, this show demands an interactive viewing experience. That being said, what is the ultimate goal you wish to achieve through people watching this show?

MK: We want to inspire viewers to get curious about how their brains work, and hopefully change their perceptions on everyday actions. We’re making the processes of the brain come to life through interactive experiments that will keep viewers guessing and wanting more.

BB: How do you go about choosing both the human subjects for the interactive experiments on the show, as well as the experts/guest(s)?

MK: The team reaches out to people in a variety of ways. Experts are usually sought out based on their published work in the subject area of an episode. Other participants are solicited online or approached on the street.

BB: Has the show changed and/or developed in any obvious or not-so-obvious ways over the seasons?

MK: The show has actually gone through many changes over the seasons. It premiered as unhosted, hour-long specials. Then it became half hours and Jason Silva was brought in as a host. The tone and style has shifted slightly season to season. And more changes are coming soon!

BB: Can you share any details with us about what viewers can expect to see in the rest of Season 5

MK: This summer, you’ll see new episodes covering topics such as scams, positive thinking, and the surprising differences and similarities between human and animal brains. We want to ask big questions, always seen through the lens of how the brain works.

BB: Is Brain Games meant for a particular audience or viewer, and has that changed at all over the seasons?

MK: The ideal viewer is really any curious person. We’ve found that people in just about every demographic have found something they love about Brain Games. Viewers play along and get interested in the “why” behind the “wow.”

The following questions refer to episodes featuring Magician, Eric LeClerc:

BB: How would  you compare the two worlds of science and magic?

MK: Magic, done honestly, can provide an excellent guide to gaps in human attention. These tricks show how easily the brain can be fooled. Many magicians, like scientists, are first-rate skeptics.

BB: What is your favorite magic-trick?

MK: Any trick where my mind appears to have been read. Gets me every time.

BB: How do you decide what insights about the brain as well as the corresponding magic-tricks and interactive brainteasers to feature on a given episode? Does one typically come before the other? How much collaboration is required and does that collaboration ever involve outside consultation?

MK: Typically, we start with a show topic or theme. Then we work with magicians to come up with related illusions.

BB: How do you find ways to distill all the complex scientific insights you discuss on the show into viewer-friendly material that is not simply related in understandable terms, but can resonate as well? How, if any, do the “magical” aspects employed play a role in this?

MK: Just as a good magician never reveals his or her tricks, I don’t want to give away all our secrets. But when we use illusions in the show, they function as a fun way to call attention to the gap between what you expect and what’s really happening. That can be an entertaining way into a complex scientific idea.

BB: In that same vein, how do you balance the incredibly complex element of science with the goal of entertainment? Does one ever get in the way of the other?

MK: This is really an entertainment-driven show. The science comes along for the ride, but if we can’t entertain, viewers won’t watch.

Image via Linda Bucklin / Shutterstock.

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Chappie – Just How Artificial is the Intelligence Behind This Robot? http://brainblogger.com/2015/03/06/chappie-just-how-artificial-is-the-intelligence-behind-this-robot/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/03/06/chappie-just-how-artificial-is-the-intelligence-behind-this-robot/#respond Fri, 06 Mar 2015 17:46:22 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=18942 Columbia Picture’s Chappie, directed by Neil Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium), takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa only a few years in the future. In response to massive crime, the government has begun using robotic police droids called “scouts.” As they are relied upon more and more, the world falls under the thumb of the “protection” provided by this autonomous police force. One police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new, experimental programming, allowing it to become the first robot with the ability to think, feel and evolve for itself. Some begin to see Chappie as a threat to their interests and a danger to mankind; they vow not to allow anything to get in their way of eliminating Chappie and any like him.

As he did with District 9 and Elysium, Blomkamp creates an intriguing story that forces its audience to question what they believe is possible. This is an action film – a very good one at that – but it has an underlying intelligence and social consciousness that provokes thought. One issue it explores is the idea of a robot with not-so-artificial intelligence: Chappie is sentient, self-aware, and displays a range of human-like characteristics, such as morality.

Is this a good thing?

The character Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) doesn’t think so. He believes that a thinking robot carries too many unknowns and could even represent the end of mankind. Victor is a proponent for “Moose”, a much larger, more expensive and far more destructive robot. Moose is the ultimate droid video game: it is controlled by a remote human wearing a helmet with neuro-transmitters that allow the droid to be directed by the human’s thoughts. Moose puts those thoughts into action on the field, leaving the human safely removed from the dangers of battle. This is quite different than Chappie, who can reason independently from any controlling human.

Blomkamp’s film not only provides solid sci-fi/action thrills, it offers a serious contemplation on the implications of the things we’re capable of. That it accomplishes both levels – the sci-fi/action level and the analytical level – unusually well makes this a particularly strong film.

But Chappie’s world is not some far off dream. Chappie is a film where today’s science fiction provides a glimpse into the very near future’s possibilities. In fact, Chappie shows what we are already capable of – or at the very least, what we are on the verge of being capable of.

I spoke with Wolfgang Fink, PhD, a world-renowned expert in robotics, about the technology represented in Chappie. Fink founded the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, as well as the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona.

Fink explained that the robotics in Chappie are not science fiction. “As far as the robotics (in Chappie) are concerned, that definitely is something that is already here, more or less,” he told me. “For example, we have robots that are bipedal, with the capability to climb, fly, dive, walk, run, etc. As such, the essence of the hardware depicted in the film, that is already a reality.” That said, Fink pointed out that we do not yet have the ability to create fully sentient, self-aware robots.

The robot police scouts in Chappie are an example of something we do have the technology to create. Such technology falls directly into the real-life work of Fink and others. For example, Dennis Hong, PhD, and his team at the robotics department at UCLA have developed a life-sized , humanoid robot named THOR-OP (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot), designed for disaster response applications. THOR actually looks fairly similar to Chappie, both robots use electric power, both are modular which means you can easily replace parts, both can get into a drive a car, climb ladders and execute a number of useful tasks that would otherwise have to be performed by humans.

The scouts reflect where we currently are in artificial intelligence, which can essentially be classified as rule-based systems. In other words, the scout robots can encounter a certain situation and will act in the specific way they are programmed to act in that circumstance. A scout robot can see that a car is parked incorrectly and tit knows to write it a ticket. A scout can see a person pull a gun, and it knows to then pull its own gun and try to contain the person. These rules can be quite complex, and systems with artificial intelligence have a limited capacity to learn new rules.

While the current technology is not being used for the purpose outlined in the film (i.e a robot police force), we do have systems that follow programmed script,s with limited intelligence (e.g., the ability to learn rules).

The filmmakers intentionally set out to have the scouts (including Chappie) reflect what we are currently capable of. Blomkamp’s goal was r reality, not fantasy. Joe Dunckley, Specialty Props Effects Supervisor of Chappie, said that Blomkamp:

wanted it to be real – he didn’t want it to be over-the-top in its functionality. He couldn’t have laser beams pop out of nowhere. It had to be tough, but it also had to look like something a government could afford in a few year’s time.

Because of its grounding in the real state of current technology, Chappie has a stronger impact than typical sci-fi/action films. Blomkamp says:

The idea was to take something as unhuman as a robot – especially a police robot – and give him complete human characteristics, to the point that he becomes more emotional than the human characters.

The authenticity and impact of Chappie is increased by the fact that he is not a purely CGI creation. Instead, Chappie is played by actor Sharlto Copley, who performs in each scene alongside the other characters. This makes Chappie, the character, feel real. It also helped the other actors, since they were able to interact with a real character, and not a green-screen. In fact, the audience is able to connect with Chappie, as a character, more than the human characters at times.

For example, there is a scene where Chappie is left alone in a sketchy, remote area surrounded by a group of dangerous thugs. The thugs, believing Chappie to be just another police droid, show their hatred of the oppressive police-force: they throw rocks at the robot, yell hateful things, hit him with a pipe, and even throw a Molotov cocktail at him, lighting him on fire. Sure, Chappie physically survives: he’s a robot. However, at this point, Chappie is similar to an adolescent child. In this scene, Chappie is at the very beginning of his evolution. He is impressionable and innocent. Despite his titanium build, the audience has established a true emotional connection to him because of these qualities, just as it would to a human child. As such, it is heart breaking to see Chappie in such terrifying circumstances. You truly grow to feel for him, even though he is a machine.

As Fink explains, while the film does reflect real technological abilities we have today, the full capabilities of Chappie are still just beyond our reach. While we can program a robot to fully function in a well-defined environment, once that robot meets an unknown, they will be much less useful. While we have made tremendous strides in the past 60 years or so in the development of artificial intelligence, we have not reached a point of creating a fully autonomous robot that has the ability to learn and build upon its learning in quite the self-aware way that Chappie does.

It’s just a matter of time, though. In the meantime, films like Chappie encourage us to think and prepare for the inevitable real-life questions that Chappie and Moose represent.

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Star Wars – Yesterday’s Sci-Fi is Today’s Reality http://brainblogger.com/2015/02/15/star-wars-yesterdays-sci-fi-is-todays-reality/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/02/15/star-wars-yesterdays-sci-fi-is-todays-reality/#respond Sun, 15 Feb 2015 12:00:24 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=18012 Whether you are dreading it, counting down the days or couldn’t care less, with the New Year comes a new Star Wars movie. Production on Episode VII: The Force Awakens ended the first week of November 2014. The film franchise is the perfect reminder of how science fiction of the past has predicted some of today’s incredible technological advancements.

Mark Hamill has turned to the dark side of the Force. He was also the surprise addition to the roster, reading for the Emperor of last Thursday’s live-reading of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, as part of the Film Independent series. Director Jason Reitman and Film Independent clearly made the right choice making Star Wars their latest live reading. The reading, which is typically held at LACMA, was moved to the Majestic Theater at the Ace Hotel in order to accommodate the outcry for more tickets. Throughout the fantastic performance I was reminded of the medical technology in the story.

Before dissecting the million and one illustrations of this, lets take a look at just a few in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

Two things jump out as the biggest examples:

    1. Luke’s perfectly human-looking prosthetic hand he can control with his mind, which he receives upon losing his own during the light saber battle with Darth Vader.
    2. Darth Vader’s infamous black suit. In addition to prosthetic replacements this suit serves as Vader’s (AKA Anakin Skywalker’s) life-support.

These details are what put the fiction in the film’s science fiction labeling. Now, nearly 40 years later, the medical technology is not only within our reach, it is our reality.

Last year, Les Baugh of Colorado became the first bilateral shoulder level amputee that can actually control a prosthetic limb with his own mind. Baugh underwent a procedure called targeted muscle reinnervation surgery. This relatively new surgical procedure marks a huge leap in the strategic innovations of biomedical engineering.


Prostheses have always presented a medical and engineering challenge. After amputation, access to the neural-control information of the missing arm is lost as well, rendering it no longer biomechanically functional. For centuries, prostheses never restored the function of an individual’s amputated limb to anything close to an adequate level. These common prostheses captured the remaining joint motion with a harness, transferring it through a cable to operate the arm, hand, etc.

Targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR) transfers residual arm nerves to alternative muscle sites; typically residual chest or upper-arm muscles. After the surgery, the targeted muscles give off electromyogram (EMG) signals on the surface of the skin. The produced EMG information is significant enough to be measured and subsequently used to control advanced prosthetic devices. The muscles essentially act as biological amplifiers of motor commands from the transferred limb nerves thus giving physiologically appropriate EMG signals for real-time motor control.

John Hopkins trauma surgeon Albert Chi, MD, explains:

‘By reassigning existing nerves, we can make it possible for people who have had upper-arm amputations to control their prosthetic devices by merely thinking about the action they want to perform.’

The approach for each patient varies, depending on the remaining anatomy after amputation. Baugh received two robotic, bionic arms attached at shoulder level. These Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPL) were a part of the result of the DARPA-funded Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, ran at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

After recovering from surgery, Baugh began working with researchers on the pattern recognition system to use the ground-breaking MPLs.

‘We use pattern recognition algorithms to identify individual muscles that are contracting, how well they communicate with each other, and their amplitude and frequency. We take that information and translate that into actual movements within a prosthetic.’

After just 10 days of training, Baugh was already demonstrating never before seen restoration in his motor control. These developments bring the robotic arm of Skywalker to a very near reality. And what about Vader’s suit? Or holographic technology? These and many others are becoming more and more a part of our world.

But with the rapid pace of technological advancement comes important questions. For example, where do we draw the line between improving for the sake of medicine and improving for the sake of ambition, curiosity or even eugenics?

During the following series of articles we will examine these questions and chart the progression of medical technology.

Special Thanks to Elvis Mitchell, Alis Quart Khan and the Entire Film Independent Community


John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory: Press release (16 December, 2014). Amputee Makes History with APL’s Modular Prosthetic Limb Accessed 8 February, 2015.

Kuiken, T. (2009). Targeted Muscle Reinnervation for Real-time Myoelectric Control of Multifunction Artificial Arms JAMA, 301 (6) DOI: 10.1001/jama.2009.116

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Dealing With Super Bowl Defeat http://brainblogger.com/2015/02/08/dealing-with-super-bowl-defeat/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/02/08/dealing-with-super-bowl-defeat/#respond Mon, 09 Feb 2015 01:18:26 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=18540 The morning after the Eagles lost to the Redskins 24-27, my boyfriend removed his Eagles watch before he left for work. He didn’t wear it again for another two weeks. At first, I admit, I was a little annoyed. After all, that watch was one of the first things I gave him.

Now, after seeing the reactions of a slew of devastated Seahawk fans, I’m just glad my boyfriend didn’t smash the watch straight through the television set.

It’s not news that sport fans have strong connections to their teams’ fate. There are dozens of reasons why people choose to emotionally commit to a given sports team, but a few are especially prominent. Surveys show that the top three most common include:

  • Having parents who were fans
  • The favorability of the players and the overall characteristics of the team
  • Geography (i.e. supporting your local team) carrying with it, the influence of friends and community.

Adam Earnhardt, chairman of the communications department at Youngstown State University and co-author of Sports Fans, Identity and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium said:

‘Our research has shown that the number one reason people become fans is that it’s your connection to your first community.’

Being a “fan” is an expression and an extension of one’s identity. As such, it is not an illogical affectation for a fan to use the word “we” when talking about their team. In actuality, the brain does not differentiate between what is “me” and what is “the team.”

Mirror neurons are thought to be activated in the brain, causing a fan to take on the emotions, actions and even hormones of the players they are rooting for. Urine analysis performed on spectator fans after a game have shown quantities of unused sugar that resulted from the adrenal gland stimulus (i.e. caused by excitement), similar to that which is produced by the players in the game. The key difference: the player burns off said adrenaline while the fan does not. As such, it is scientifically understandable when a fan screams obscenities or even runs head first into their own television set after a bad loss. (I said “understandable,” not “acceptable”!) This is even more understandable if your team was one Marshawn Lynch yard away from winning back-to-back Super Bowls, only to lose it in a blink of an eye.

Team defeats, especially when they are narrow or unexpected (both true in Sunday’s Super Bowl), have a measurable effect on a fan’s self-regulation abilities. Yann Cornil, researcher at the INSEAD Business School, noted that:

‘Although prior studies had shown that sport outcomes influence reckless driving, heart attacks and even domestic violence, no one had examined how they influence eating.’

Cornil, along with fellow INSEAD professor Pierre Chandon, described how something as small as a rush play versus a pass play can determine what we eat the following day.

Using archival and experimental data, Cornil and Chandon demonstrated that vicarious defeats experienced by football fans (watching your favorite team lose) cause said fans to make severely unhealthy eating choices.

Comparing the outcomes of the 2004 and 2005 NFL seasons with people’s food consumption in over two-dozen cities, Cornil and Chandon were able to determine the quantities and types of food eaten after wins and losses. The researchers explained: ‘The data also allowed us to look at people living in cities without an NFL team or with a team that didn’t play on that particular day, providing us with two control samples.’

Overall, their results demonstrated that, on the the Monday after a big game, football fans of the losing team ate about 16% more saturated fats compared to their usual Monday consumption. Fans of the winning team ate about 9% less saturated fat compared to their usual intake. Surprisingly, these trends held even when people who did not identify as football fans were included in the sample. They found no evidence of anticipation or compensation effects and found no effects when the home team did not play or in cities without an NFL team.

‘People eat better when their football team wins and worse when it loses, especially if they lost unexpectedly, by a narrow margin, or against a team of equal strength,’ said the researchers. They also found that a simple technique of self-affirmation – where an individual reflects on what they personally value in life – eliminated the unhealthy effects of the loss.

This is perhaps particularly noteworthy for fans of teams that have a seeming perennial losing pattern. The fact that simply reaffirming the positives to ourselves can extinguish such aforementioned negative effects is reassuring. It’s a reminder that while the reasons for a disappointed fan drowning in Big Macs or jumping through their own television set may be explained from a biological, psychological, neurological, sociological, and physiological viewpoint, it isn’t justified in absolute terms that cannot be dealt with.

In fact, such over-the-top reactions arguably separate the individual from the team and the stratified team/fan collective they believe they belong to. For one thing, while Super Bowl XLIX ended with players brawling in the end zone, player reactions rarely go farther than that. Furthermore, while shared victory is always preferable, there is an undeniable element of shared misery and loss that is part of the basis for the fan community.

Loss can also have unintentional therapeutic results as well. The fan whose identity is so tightly merged with the identity of the team may find a sort of wake-up-call after an upsetting loss. The loss can result in the inclination to distance oneself from their defeated team. This concept, as coined by researchers C.R. Snyder, Mary Anne Lassergard and Carol E. Ford is referred to as CORFing (Cutting Off Reflected Failure).

It’s true that although watching the game can affect you in ways you cannot control, the majority of every fan’s faculties remain under their control. Furthermore, while losing has potential negative side-effects for the viewing fan, overall, the act of being a fan of any team is a positive thing. Whether it’s high self-esteem or being more active physically, politically and socially, sports fans are positively benefited by their love of the game.


Cornil Y, & Chandon P (2013). From fan to fat? Vicarious losing increases unhealthy eating, but self-affirmation is an effective remedy. Psychological science, 24 (10), 1936-46 PMID: 23925307

Image via zeljkodan / Shutterstock.

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Invisibilia – Interview with the Co-Hosts of NPR’s Latest Show http://brainblogger.com/2015/01/23/invisibilia-interview-with-the-co-hosts-of-nprs-latest-show/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/01/23/invisibilia-interview-with-the-co-hosts-of-nprs-latest-show/#respond Fri, 23 Jan 2015 12:00:31 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=18305 “What were you just thinking?”

“Are your thoughts related to your inner desires?”

“Do they reveal who you REALLY are?”

Invisibilia_Alix_LuluThese are the questions Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller explore in NPR’s new show, Invisibilia (Latin for “all the invisible things”).

With the first episode, The Secret History of Thoughts, we are introduced to a man referred to only as “S” gripped by violent thoughts of killing his wife, and another man trapped inside his body for 12 years; his thoughts being the only thing he could control.

Invisibilia proved to be a prime example of what The Hollywood Medical Reporter aims to examine and discuss. Granted film and television have taken much of the influence once held by radio, the later has not been extinguished by a long shot. Radio and podcasts remain quite popular. As such, so does their influence and power.

This show exemplifies the possibility of that power. Spiegel and Miller take a scientific topic – such as modern psychoanalysis – and shape their presentation with a personal human narrative. The listener gets pulled in – not wholly, but arguably in large part – by the human story of a man consumed with the thought of stabbing his wife, and along the ride learns of the various forms of psychoanalysis the man experienced.

The first episode alone offers such a vast array of topics to discuss that we will be breaking up this coverage into two parts. The first installment we will share our interview with co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller.

How do you pick your interview subjects?

AS & LM: This depends a lot on the subject of the story, but when our focus is someone with an unusual brain condition, we usually talk to a bunch of people with the condition (six to twelve, sometimes more sometimes less) by telephone. We interview them enough to get a decent sense of how they are experiencing the world and what they have to say – then we set up studio interviews with two or three of them. From there we will usually focus on one in particular to visit in person and build into the main subject of the story. That person is picked because there was something they said that seemed particularly interesting, or they are just open to talking about their experience. It’s not really a science, it’s more like a gut reaction to the interview. There are some stories where it’s not possible to talk to a bunch of different people. For example this season we did a story about someone whose brain makes her biologically incapable of fear. That is such a specific condition that it wasn’t possible to talk to a bunch of people about it.

How does this decision factor into the shaping of the tone and general content of the given episode?

AS: I think what’s important is that they seem representative of what it is that you are trying to explore and they seem trustworthy. It’s not possible to know before you sit down for the actual in-person interview what the shape of their story is going to take, what their real experience has been. You just have to talk and see where it goes.

What are your hopes for this program?

AS & LM: We hope it will be received kind of like The Interview was – we’re looking for a statement from President Obama and maybe a formal complaint against us at the UN by North Korea, but we’re kinda doubting that will happen.

Our more realistic hope is that these stories expand listeners’ own thoughts and understanding. We want to be thought-provoking! And we also hope that some people will find a kind of comfort or edification in the stories and that those people will tell their friends about it and then some of those friends will also find a comfort or edification in the stories. We’d be really happy with that.

Do you employ medical experts to assist and advise you on how to go about this project, particularly in regards to any potential caution that may or may not be needed in choosing your interviewees?

AS: I don’t think that we’ve talked to anyone on the show who has been dangerous in any way. Our first program involves someone who initially sounds like they could be dangerous, but the story is about how he is actually one of the most decent, non-violent people you will ever meet. We do talk to lots of scientific experts though – tons of them – and they always give us advice on what we are doing.

How did you come to choose this as NPR’s newest program? What went into this decision?

EN: At NPR, we like to maintain an innovative culture, so we are vetting new ideas all the time. Sometimes it is for a radio show, a special series, a podcast, a blog—lots of ideas percolate all the time. For new shows, like Invisibilia, we follow an iterative development process, which means we work on new ideas a little bit at a time so we can really understand the idea, the work involved, and its potential. So an innovative idea like Invisibilia isn’t unique at NPR; it’s just the only idea (of many) that made it this far in the process.

How do you balance being entertaining with being informative; not to mention being reliably accurate and consumer-friendly so as to produce good ratings?

AS: Well we try very hard to be both! Lulu came from Radiolab and Alix came from This American Life, and so we both were trained in how to tell stories that deliver a lot of information in a way that feels fun.

How much would you say good storytelling plays in the success of this and other radio/podcast programming (NPR and not)? In what way, if at all, does the role, technique and implementation of storytelling differ than in other media such as novel writing, screenwriting?

AG: Storytelling is not a technique for us. Because, if you think about it, we all are living our own stories. Life is a story. At home. At work. So, finding and telling stories seems to us like the most natural way to share information. Serving up information, facts by themselves, takes it out of context.

Sure, a lot of the time reporters don’t present the two together, because they need to be quick. Gathering information and getting it out to people fast is often the most important thing. But we are taking the time (and we hope our listeners will too) to keep story and information together.

As for radio versus other media, radio is the most intimate medium, a human voice connecting with your imagination. It’s probably the oldest too, isn’t it? Really fundamental to our human experience. So we think radio is the right medium for Invisibilia.

How common is “Harm OCD,” [the condition which caused “S” to be consumed with thoughts of killing his wife]? Does the intangible nature of its symptoms impact the ability to diagnosis it?

AS & LM: Turns out Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with harming obsessions, or Harm OCD, is a well-recognized condition that is regularly diagnosed. I (this is Alix) had never heard of it before I got an email from someone who had it, but once I started looking into it, I was surprised by how many people had it. To find out more about it you can look here.

Indeed, I have to say (now this is Lulu), once I starting talking to people about this piece we were working on — in which an otherwise normal man is plagued by violent thoughts everywhere he looks — the amount of people that privately confessed they had such thoughts really shocked me. I think maybe it is not as rare as you might think. I think there is huge stigma around it, and thus people are often left alone with these thoughts, worrying about them, which is exactly the perfect way to make them worse.

Also – and this is important – mental health professionals who work with people who have violent thoughts have various ways of diagnosing whether the thoughts are signs of OCD. It’s not as though everyone off the street who is complaining of murderous thoughts is told the thoughts should be ignored; it takes a therapist or psychiatrist time and investigation to get to that point.

And of course, as with any condition, medical or psychological, the diagnosis is always (at least in some very small sense) a bet. Which is sort of the point of the show. Frustrating as it may be, it’s very hard to get to an absolutely scientifically perfectly perfect absolutely certain answer to the question of “how are your thoughts related to your inner wishes?” But in the case of the mental health professionals we were talking to, some of them have been working on this condition for 20 years and never once been wrong on their “bet.”

When attempting to reach large audiences, how do you overcome the distance between the two types of knowledge involved: scientific knowledge and common knowledge?

AG: We let each one inform the other.

How would you define the genre of entertainment INVISIBILIA fits into? Is it a simplified scientific message or perhaps, does it belong to a different category? To that end, how does NPR effectively use mass media to popularize science and medical subjects?

AG: Invisibilia looks at things that have a profound and yet mostly unrecognized impact on us. Intangible things like thoughts, expectations, fears. And sometimes tangible things, like computers, that affect us in unseen ways. As scientific research reveals how these things shape our behavior and our lives, we will try to share what has been found. So Invisibilia is stories about what we don’t usually see about ourselves.

Regarding NPR and science and medical subjects, our feeling is that we don’t need to popularize them. We just need to make them accessible. We all want to know about ourselves and our world. Sharing this kind of information in stories can make it clear and meaningful.

Can you share a particular story and/or moment you heard or experienced during production that stuck with you on a deep level and why?

AS: There have been so many: for me (Alix) one of the most powerful was when we went to interview this woman who physically feels the things that the people around her physically feel. It made me think really differently about empathy. Lulu?

LM: Can I have two? I have two. 1) “BOTHER.” When I was interviewing a woman from India for a piece about an all-Indian retirement community in Florida, she mentioned that where she grew up (in a small Indian village), there was no word for “bother.” “Why would you say that word?” she asked me. Her point was that, when she came to the States, everybody was always afraid of ‘bothering’ each other, of showing up unannounced on a neighbor’s doorstep, or calling to talk on the phone. I completely knew what she meant. I spend a large portion of my life being TERRIFIED of ‘bothering’ people. I will look at a telephone and literally sweat… before dialing. And here she was pointing out – that where she came from ‘bothering’ wasn’t even a thing. It started to make me realize just how much my private interior life (like the pounding worry that can be produced by fear of bothering) is in fact created by exterior forces like culture and society. Alix has known this for a very long time, but I’ve been a little late to the party. 2) THERE IS A FOOLPROOF ANTIDOTE FOR FEAR. It is not a controlled substance. It requires no prescription. It is just a very simple equation that this man, Jason Comely, an IT guy in Canada, discovered and told us about. But I suppose I shouldn’t tell you what it is, because it’s kind of the treat we dangle at the end of the “FEARLESS” episode. So. You will just have to listen.

Can you share a bit on what we can expect for future episodes?

AS: We’ve done a whole show about fear (that’s the one with the person who is biologically incapable of fear) and another about expectations. In the future we want to do a whole show that looks at the concept of personality.

LM: Well, there is the show about fear we just mentioned (Jan 16). There is also a totally cool and spooky episode about entanglements, and all the ways we are connected to each other in ways that REALLLLLLLLY surprised me (and in ways that aren’t theoretical but quite earthly, and real, and being capitalized on by the US gov’t). That episode comes out Feb 6. There may or may not be a partly sung segment in our show about how computers are changing how we behave (Feb 13). And, if they let us keep making this stuff, we’ve talked about wanting to do the show on personality (how consistent it is over a lifetime, what forms it, does it come from the outside or in?), teen pregnancy, and a town in Belgium where being psychologically abnormal is the norm.

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Happy Birthday Stephen Hawking from Brain Blogger http://brainblogger.com/2015/01/08/happy-birthday-stephen-hawking-from-brain-blogger/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/01/08/happy-birthday-stephen-hawking-from-brain-blogger/#respond Fri, 09 Jan 2015 02:34:16 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=18201 Stephen Hawking turns 73 today, defeating the odds of a daunting diagnosis by over half a century. The famous theoretical physicist popularized modern cosmology, brought theories and facts about black holes and quantum gravity to the main stream and ultimately to the silver screen. The success of his works and the power his name resounds demonstrates just how massive an impact this man has had, and no doubt will continue to have on the world and its inhabitants.

Happy Birthday,
From all with a brain

A brief history of Stephen Hawking:

  • 1942 – Born in Oxford, England, on January 8th, the 200th anniversary of the death of astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei.
  • 1950 – Attended St. Albans High School for Girls, but only for a few months because at the time younger boys could attend one of the houses.
  • 1958 – Attended college at Oxford where his passion was math and his degree was in natural sciences.
  • 1958 – While at Oxford, he coxed a rowing team, as he put it, “To relieve immense boredom”.
  • 1962 – Graduated from Oxford and went to Cambridge for his PhD.
  • 1963 – Is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and given the prognosis of two to three years to live.
  • 1965 – Married first wife Jane “Wilde” Hawking.
  • 1966 – Completed his doctoral work in theoretical physics, after submitting a thesis on black holes.
  • 1979 – Had third child with wife Jane by the time he was 27 (showing that in addition to his brain, another body part still worked perfectly well).
  • 1970 – Discovery of the fact that black holes emit radiation (result of combining the theory of relativity with quantum theory).
  • 1979 – Became the 17th Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, an academic chair at Cambridge University, the same position held by Sir Isaac Newton from 1669 to 1702.
  • 1982 – Awarded the honor of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
  • 1985 – Hospitalized with pneumonia and receives an emergency tracheotomy, causing permanent damage to the larynx and vocal cords. As such a keyboard operated electronic speech synthesizer is made and adapted to his wheelchair, engineered by David Mason, at the time married to Elaine Mason, one of Hawking’s nurses and future second wife.
  • 1988 – A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes is published on April Fool’s Day. It has become a landmark volume in scientific writing with more than 9 million copies in 40 languages sold worldwide. It remained a London Times’ best-seller for more than four years and is the most popular scientific text of all time. A Cambridge University poll ranked it as the book “most likely” to have the same influence as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selections.
  • 1991 – Steven Spielberg produced Errol Morris’s documentary A Brief History of Time documenting Hawking’s life and accomplishments, which became so successful that it led to the publication of a reader’s companion to the film and book. The success of the companion the led to a six-part television miniseries, Stephen Hawkin’s Universe, first televised in 1997.
  • 1995 – Divorced Jane married Elaine Mason (whom he divorces in 2006).
  • 1996 – Published The Illustrated A Brief History of Time.
  • 2004 – Reversed the 1966 theory that black holes swallow everything in their path forever and declares that black holes will never support space travel to other universes.
  • 2007 – At 65 years old, experienced space simulation at Kennedy Space Center where he reacted,

    “The zero-G part was wonderful and the higher-G part was no problem. I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come!”

  • 2014 – Focus Feature’s film The Theory of Everything is released based on the memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking. It is directed by Academy Award winner James Marsh, written and produced by Anthony McCarten, and starred Eddi Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Image via Featureflash / Shutterstock.

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The Hollywood Medical Reporter – Alive Inside http://brainblogger.com/2015/01/05/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-alive-inside/ http://brainblogger.com/2015/01/05/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-alive-inside/#respond Mon, 05 Jan 2015 12:00:26 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=18092 Social worker Dan Cohen is the founder of an organization called Music & Memory, which brings personal music players (typically iPods) to people with Alzheimer’s disease. Cohen asked filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett to follow him as he went to various nursing homes, trying to bring one-on-one “music therapy” to sufferers of dementia. Little did Bennett know that this side-project would soon turn into a documentary, Alive Inside, which would become the hit of Sundance and spark a viral craze of hope and compassion.

In recent years, Alzheimer’s disease and its victims have been depicted in many Hollywood films and television shows. However, these efforts have rarely provided real insight into the human story of the disease, much less any focus on hope for treating it.

For example, the 2011 film Friends with Benefits is a romantic-comedy whose premise carries just as much depth as its title suggests. Films of this well-worn genre frequently encounter a problem about halfway into the second act – they are just too darn funny. The solution? Throw in a parent, sibling, relative or friend (anyone, really, since it typically carries no real consequence to the overall story) and give them an unquestionably heart wrenching disease that will turn the upbeat tone into one of sympathetic poignancy and, hopefully, give the film some weight. And, by the way, if you don’t feel what you’re supposed to feel, well then, you’re just a heartless monster.

So, in Friends with Benefits, one of the main characters, Dylan, has a father with Alzheimer’s. Since this sub-plot of what is otherwise a romantic comedy doesn’t have a lot to do with the overall plot or the characters’ development, one might say that the portrayal of Dylan’s father’s condition (e.g., a scene in a restaurant where his father has forgotten he has been divorced for 10 years, and becomes wildly agitated when he’s reminded) is in the movie simply as a ploy for poignancy. As such, in a way, it trivializes the condition. (Am I being a heartless monster to suggest that?)

I suppose the other side of the spectrum would be films where the tragedy of the disease overwhelms the entire story.

Representing this disease with compassion, without being sappy, and accuracy, without being coldly clinical, is not an easy task.

As such, when I had the opportunity to speak with Rossato-Bennett I instantly expressed just how shocked and grateful I was to finally see, in Alive Inside, a film on Alzheimer’s and dementia that is both informative and uplifting. To this he responded:

“There’s a huge tradition, documentary tradition, of being a watchdog in a way. It’s showing the world problems that they don’t see. It’s igniting action through empathy. But the problem is right now in the world is that there are so many problems that people kind of shut down and they’re overwhelmed by the scope of the problems facing us. And actually our social structures have sort of shut down in a way… So it doesn’t seem to help to shock people into action. What really happens is people get shocked and depressed and then they kind of hover for a moment and then they turn on a movie or something.”

So how did Bennett’s film turn from the dark, tragedy filled we’ve seen before to the informative and uplifting documentary focusing on the human rather than the patient? And what caused this change?

“Honestly, I have Henry (an Alzheimer’s patient shown in the film) to thank for this. I was making a film with a model for a documentary film that I rode up in, but then the Henry clip went viral worldwide in an accidental way and it was never intended to be seen by anyone, just like I never thought this film would be seen by anyone. But the response to the Henry clip was so profound.”

Bennett was referring to someone who is perhaps the most popular subject of the documentary. Henry, 94 at the time, had spent the past decade of his life as a resident of the Cobble Hill nursing home, and was one of the five million people in America suffering from dementia. Henry usually spends his days in what could easily be confused as a catatonic state: unresponsive and entirely shut-off from the world. Then one day, Dan Cohen and Rossato-Bennett came to visit.

Dan puts a set of headphones on Henry so he can hear the 1940s and gospel music that he grew up with. What happens next is nothing short of miraculous. It would be hard to believe it if you did not see it with your own eyes. Instantly, Henry comes to life. He begins to tap his fingers and bob his head to the rhythm and even sings along to Cab Calloway’s I’ll be Home for Christmas. He then progresses to share detail after detail about his life.

Rossato-Bennett exposes us to dozens of other people like Henry, all having similar, yet all unique, reactions to their music. John, a quiet Army veteran begins dancing in his wheelchair as the sound of the Andrew Sisters fill his ears. Denise, a bipolar schizophrenic tosses her walking frame away and proceeds to dance as the sounds of Schubert flow from her headphones and through her mind and body.

Rossato-Bennett consults with several medical professionals and experts in the field of aging. Alzheimer’s first attacks the hippocampus, the area of the brain where the majority of memory is stored. However, music – called by many a “backdoor to the mind” – is not stored in the hippocampus alone. When music enters the brain it stimulates numerous different parts at once and at so many different levels. Because these other areas of the brain are largely the last to be affected by Alzheimer’s, music still holds the power to fire off these synapse fireworks of communications. Essentially, because our brain reacts to and stores music in such a unique way, it gives a brain crippled by dementia access to memories they would otherwise have no access to.

Unfortunately, many– if not most – of the facilities meant to care for people like Henry do not see value in investing time and money into musical therapy. Gerontologist and advocate for long-term care reform, Dr. Bill Thomas, MD, says:

“What we’re spending on drugs that mostly don’t work [for dementia] dwarfs what it would take to deliver personal music to every nursing home resident in America. I can sit down and write a prescription for a $1,000 a month antidepressant, no problem. Personal music doesn’t count as a medical intervention. The real business, trust me, is in the pill bottle.”

Without question, iPods are not the cure-all vaccine for dementia. Nor is there a clear and easy solution to bringing musical therapy to more of the five million affected by this disease. Nevertheless, this film shows us that this approach can help, frequently wonderfully and miraculously.

As a film, Alive Inside is, perhaps, not perfect. For example, there are many different people in the film who basically make the same point about the possibilities of music therapy, and that can be a little repetitive. That’s an extremely minor point, though. The film focuses on Dan Cohen’s effort to bring this therapy to patients in nursing homes across the country. In doing so, filmmaker Rossato-Bennett provides information about the nursing home system, the obstacles Cohen faces, and how he is gradually overcoming those obstacles.

But the core of this film’s emotional impact is with the patients. Their reactions to – and improvements with – this therapy is an absolutely thrilling and uplifting thing to see.

Image via Tushnov Alexey / Shutterstock.

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What is ALS? The Real Challenge http://brainblogger.com/2014/12/05/what-is-als-the-real-challenge/ http://brainblogger.com/2014/12/05/what-is-als-the-real-challenge/#respond Fri, 05 Dec 2014 12:00:38 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=17707 The “Ice Bucket Challenge” helped raise over $100 million for ALS research in little more than a month. This is a staggering 3,500% increase from the $2.8 million that the ALS Association raised during the same time period in 2013. Such a viral craze has the power to bring about tangible change. But is that impact diminished if most participants have no semblance of an idea as to what the challenge was about… or at the very least, what ALS stands for?

I admit to having a personal stake in this. My mother’s father, Martin Greene, was a victim of ALS. He died long before I was born, so I never got to meet him, but I did get to hear family stories. My father told me how had to carry the 6’5″ man from the “chair lift” to a wheelchair, and how his 17-year old daughter (my mother) had to wash his misshapen and immobile hands for him. According to my parents, the depiction of ALS in The Theory of Everything was uncannily accurate. But, above all else, my mother also tells me how brilliant, kind and full of life my grandfather was, rightfully focusing on the man he was before the illness pillaged him.

While I have these anecdotes, I confess, I am far from an expert on the condition. In the end, I had to do what everyone who hasn’t gone to medical school has to do: educate myself. I wanted to know, beyond the hashtags, selfies and “up-votes,” what was the Ice Bucket Challenge actually challenging?

What is ALS?

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease is a rapidly progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

It is characterized by the degeneration and eventual loss of the upper and lower motor neurons responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. In essence, ALS disables the brain from sending messages to the spinal cord, and from the spinal cord to the muscles. In the end the brain loses the ability to wilfully control muscles. ALS is one of the most common motor neuron diseases, affecting approximately 1.5 to 2.5 per 100,000 people every year worldwide.

ALS is most commonly found in adults between the ages of 40 and 60 years old. It has not been found to affect any single race and/or ethnic background more than any other. While, overall, it is of unknown etiology, a genetic basis has been linked to approximately 10% of cases. Studies have linked 10 identifiable genes to ALS and other motor neuron diseases (including a mutation of the enzyme superoxide dismutase 1, found by Rozen and colleagues in 1993).

Typical symptoms of upper motor neuron (UMNs) degeneration include motor weakness, spasticity, hyperreflexia, and extensor plantar response. Signs of lower motor neurons (LMNs) degeneration include muscle weakness, hypotonia, hyporeflexia, and muscle atrophy. Such signs manifest in patients exhibiting impairment in walking, swallowing (dysphagia), speaking (dysarthia), and eventually breathing. Patients are also known to experience twitches of muscles that can be seen under the skin (fasciculations).

Respiratory complications are a major cause of morbidity and mortality that are typically seen in later stages of the disease. Within 3-5 years from the initial onset of symptoms, most patients will loose the ability to breathe on their own and eventually require mechanical ventilation and support. Unfortunately, no significant disease-modifying therapy has proven effective to date.

In patients with bulbar ALS, early tongue fasciculation and pharyngeal muscle weakness may lead to an increased risk for aspiration. In classic ALS, muscles of the tongue, pharynx, larynx, and chest become weakened and eventually atrophy. These changes are associated with decreased vital capacity, maximum voluntary ventilation, and expiratory muscle reserve leading to respiratory failure and the need for ventilatory support.

Although deterioration of motor neurons is the pathologic hallmark of ALS the interaction between non-neuronal cells and motor neurons play a key role in motor neuron degeneration. There is an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) and the distal axons are early and important pathologic targets of ALS. The NMJ is a synapse specifically controlling neuron (or nerve cell) communication between muscle and nerves necessary for skeletal muscle function.

It should be well noted that ALS is a fairly capricious disease. As such, no two people reveal the exact same symptoms or have the same experience. Stephen Hawking demonstrates this fact, by having a particularly unique form of motor neuron disease, whose symptoms have an entirely dissimilar manifestation, not in line with classic ALS.

While today there is no cure or therapeutic treatment that stops or reverses ALS, our understanding of this horrible disease continues to grow with new and evolving clinical trials. Studies conducted by the ALS Association, the Cleveland Clinic, and others are holding more promise everyday and efforts like the Ice Bucket Challenge, should only be encouraged and our spirits never diminished. We must all be encouraged help spread awareness, gain understanding and support the clinical efforts of the medical community.

In Memory of Martin Greene


Adler AC, Lakhan SE, Man S. CME Lesson 301: PreAnesthetic Assessment of the Patient with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Anesthesiology News. December 2012;33-36.

Image via Wanphen Chawarung / Shutterstock.

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The Hollywood Medical Reporter – Big Eyes and Delusional Disorder http://brainblogger.com/2014/12/03/big-eyes-review/ http://brainblogger.com/2014/12/03/big-eyes-review/#respond Wed, 03 Dec 2014 12:00:15 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=17732 Simultaneously grotesque yet tender material is director Tim Burton’s specialty. Burton was therefore the perfect choice for a film about Margaret Keane’s art, which was mostly recognizable by children with strange – but sweet – over-sized eyes. Big Eyes is easily among my personal favorite Tim Burton films.

Left to Right: Tim Burton, Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams

Left to Right: Tim Burton, Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Film Independent at LACMA screening series for the world premiere of Big Eyes, which will open Christmas Day. Burton and stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, after watching it for the first time themselves, participated in a panel discussion moderated by Film Independent curator, Elvis Mitchell.

Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret and Walter Keane in the 1950s and 1960s. The Keanes’ marriage ends after years of Walter defrauding the world, and perhaps even himself, into thinking that his wife’s paintings of wide-eyed children were his own creation.

The film begins with Margaret (Amy Adams) packing her things and driving off with her daughter (Delaney Raye), just having left husband number one. She moves to San Francisco, where she soon meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at an outdoor art fair where they both have set up shop.

You can instantly see why Burton was the right director for this story. The over-sized, pastel teal car, driving along a bright and symmetrical suburban street of 1950s San Francisco is iconic of his work. A voice-over narration, used throughout the film, adds to the storybook feel.

However, this storybook suburbia is real. While the aesthetics of the time and place fit right in with Burton’s taste, the larger than life character of Walter Keane truly seems to have lived for the sole purpose of providing Tim Burton with an ideal subject for a film.

The moment Margaret and the audience meet Walter we both fall in love. Who wouldn’t? He is the definition of charming and charismatic, with a mouth so smooth and fast it deserves its own Olympic category. At first, the worst we may think is that he is a delightfully manipulative scoundrel. However, we soon understand that Walter’s ability to manipulate the truth is out of control, and a symptom of deeper issues. In 1986, 20 years after Margaret leaves Walter, she decides to sue him for slander to finally set the record straight on who the true artist of the family is. During the case, a court psychologist diagnoses Walter as having delusional disorder.

Delusional disorder, according to the DSM-IV, is characterized by the presence of either bizarre or non-bizarre delusions (or a fixed, false belief that is resistant to any reason or opposition with genuine fact), which perseveres for at least one month. The inclusion of bizarre delusions was a fairly recent addition, updated in the latest edition of the DSM 5.

A bizarre delusion is one that is clearly implausible and not understandably derived from ordinary life experiences. For example, if a person claimed that someone took out his or her organs and replaced them with someone else’s organs without leaving any scars or physical evidence of any kind, this belief would be deemed “bizarre.”

Non-bizarre delusions typically are about something occurring in a person’s life that is not out of the realm of possibility. Some examples include when a person believes: their significant other is cheating on them; a close friend is about to die; a friend is really a secret government agent; and so on. All of these examples are situations that technically could be true, or at least could be labeled as a possibility, but when checked by a third-party, proves not to be.

People like Walter Keane, who had delusional disorder, by and large do not show a noticeable impairment in their daily life. Their outward behaviors cannot generally be labeled as objectively out-of-the-ordinary or show clear signs of alarm.

Much of diagnosing delusional disorder can be categorized as being one of exclusion: the delusion in question cannot be better diagnosed as schizophrenia, a mood disorder or any other clear and strong potential diagnostic alternative.

Even without knowing the specifics, the average viewers could easily walk away from the film having made the diagnosis about Walter Keane for themselves. Even more convincing than his threats to “whack” his wife if she speaks the truth, are the wide smiles and fantastical justifications Waltz makes while calmly explaining his way out of whatever hole he happens to have been caught in. For example, years into their marriage (and lie) Margaret is taken aback by a surprising stepdaughter Walter never bothered to tell her about. While it is obvious to you, me and of course Margaret, Walter, through a clenched but convincing smile tells Margaret that he was sure he told her, and that it must just be a simple misunderstanding, not worthy of another thought. This character clearly does not deal with reality well.

The film is a far cry from perfect, or even greatness. No one could delude themselves into thinking Big Eyes is a masterpiece worthy of Keane’s own ego. There are many narrative threads it left unresolved, such as the surprise daughter. It seems as if Burton may have been a bit overwhelmed by the details of this story, unable to resist including each one, since they were all so awesomely perfect for the screen. Unlike some other films by the director (such as Alice in Wonderland, where the convoluted exploitation of the narrative may have been caused by overreaching), in Big Eyes, the filmmaker curbs his enthusiasm: he is firmly in control of his subject.

Nevertheless, the Burton touch is very much alive and all the more effective for its restraint. It maintains the fairytale feel while at the same time being both real and realistic.

The depiction of Walter Keane’s delusional disorder is 100% realistic. While the film never actually uses the phrase, “delusional disorder” it knows it could not deny this fact about the character. But more importantly, it wouldn’t want to. This character’s condition defines what happens in the film.

For example, the court sequence draws the viewer in with the fantastically absurd actions of Walter. While serving as his own lawyer, he questions himself, literally scurrying back and forth from the witness stand to behind the examiner’s table. After the judge orders both Margaret and Walter to paint in order to prove who is telling the truth, Walter still does not, and perhaps cannot, admit the truth. Rather, he clutches his arm in pain and claims to be suffering from an injury that renders him incapable of painting. Such actions, while not obviously irrational, are far more deluded than your average lie.

In the end, Big Eyes depicts the disorder accurately and exploits it with integrity. Without the disorder, there would be no conflict. Some films sacrifice accuracy (of such disorders) for the sake of heightening the drama. That is not the case here: the disorder underlies the conflict of the film without sacrificing authenticity.

Image via Ramon Espelt Photography / Shutterstock.

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The Hollywood Medical Reporter – “Sleepless in America” http://brainblogger.com/2014/11/30/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-sleepless-in-america/ http://brainblogger.com/2014/11/30/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-sleepless-in-america/#respond Sun, 30 Nov 2014 16:24:46 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=17779 The National Geographic Channel examines the science of sleep in the upcoming television event, Sleepless In America, premiering tonight at 8 PM EST/PST. Brain Blogger editor Dr. Shaheen Lakhan and I were invited for a sneak peak.

Sleep is the third pillar of good health, along with diet and exercise. This highly anticipated film exposes the hidden epidemic of sleep deprivation. It turns out that losing sleep deprives us of a whole lot more than we might think.

John HoffmanWith this production, award-winning producer Hoffman continues his legacy of sharing groundbreaking content that reflects a refreshing ability to present ethically accurate entertainment.

He’s known for spearheading unprecedented collaborations with The Public Good Projects and America’s foremost scientific authority, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Here, he begins an effort with these authorities to draw the nation’s attention to the science of sleep.

In addition to placing demonstrable importance on facts, Hoffman does not ignore the other responsibilities and necessities in producing an effective and ethical entertainment: he never forgets that he must create content that is not simply accurate, but also engaging and entertaining.

When we hear the word “documentary,” we inevitably conjure up some notion of capturing reality in a way that’s factual and accurate. However, the film technique known as “Cinema Verite” (direct cinema) – having first gained popularity in early 1960’s France – is fundamentally characterized as filming people and things in uncontrolled, unrehearsed and non-manipulated situations. This is all done in an effort to capture as much of the “essence of reality” as possible.

Of course, capturing total objectivity on screen is impossible. Even if such a thing was possible, such a film or TV program would have no obvious entertainment qualities. And as such, no one would watch it, rendering the exercise pointless.

In Sleepless In America, Hoffman shows a deep understanding of the multidimensional nature of documentary film. To rely on facts is absolutely a necessity, but it is not the whole package. This is something I believe so many films – documentaries and fiction films alike – fail to achieve or neglect to even strive for.

This can be seen first and foremost with the NIH’s involvement. Hoffman explained to me just how significant this collaboration is. For one thing, it demonstrates how the National Geographic Channel (NGC) appreciates the multidimensional aspects of the global health problem of sleeplessness. As such, they deemed it their responsibility to employ America’s foremost scientific authority – the NIH. Their goal was to draw attention to the fact that our lack of sleep is the most striking omission in today’s health conversation; the inclusion of the NIH in Sleepless In America adds scientific authority to the start of that conversation.

This NGC-NIH collaboration produced a meeting of the minds and abilities. As Mr. Hoffman told me:

“The NIH understands the importance of storytelling. They come to understand and learn and trust that we have a commitment and a need to use storytelling as a need to connect to any viewer, to hold their attention, and to make them feel that they can relate to the content.”

This documentary includes leading experts in the field who demonstrate, though scientific studies, that lack of sleep can have a direct correlation with many severe conditions. We see that it is correlated with an increase in the growth of cancer. We also see that 70% of high school students are sleep deprived, increasing their risk of suicide, mood problems and delinquency.

Hoffman knows that his show must present these scientific stats in a digestible form for the average viewer. And perhaps even more so, he knows it must be presented in a manner that viewers can relate to and feel the urgency of the subject.

This understanding is most clear in the basic structure of the documentary. The story is framed around a tragic car accident suffered by the Howard family. A drowsy driver crashed into and killed Mr. Howard’s wife and two of his children, and chronically injured the two survivors. This human story pulls in the viewer emotionally, beyond the statistics, graphs and studies, to show the real human face of the issue. It is dramatic and it is effective.

The documentary closes with Mr. Howard saying:

“As we start to learn about what happened with the accident, and that it was likely drowsy driving, I started thinking about the accountability. We make our own choices. If you’re drunk and you get into a car you made that choice. If you’re too tired and you get into a car, you made that choice. But if it is a medical facility or a trucking company or an industry that demands of their personnel to go beyond the limits of the human body in performance of their jobs, what is the accountability there? If our tragedy can create awareness, and if we can save one life, then I can’t say it would be worth it, but I can say that they wouldn’t have died in vain.”

I agree that nothing can ever bring real justice to such a senseless tragedy. But endeavors such as Sleepless In America, help spread awareness by posing tough questions, and presenting the facts. Like so many effective – and scientifically ethical – documentaries, Sleepless In America appropriately assigns the responsibility of action to the viewer.

Image via Brian A. Jackson / Shutterstock.

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“The Theory of Everything” – Review http://brainblogger.com/2014/11/07/the-theory-of-everything-review/ http://brainblogger.com/2014/11/07/the-theory-of-everything-review/#respond Sat, 08 Nov 2014 01:55:26 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=17606 I had some expectations when I learned there was to be a feature film on the life of Stephen Hawking. Like many others, I felt pretty confident that I was in for an experience filled with scientific terms I couldn’t spell, much less find engaging.

Like a lot of the arguments currently flooding the blogosphere in reaction to The Theory of Everything, I entered the theater wondering how the average layperson would understand, must less relate to the scientific content that is crucial to understanding the main character.

Adding to my nay-saying predictions was a fear that I was in for another “famous person conquers famous disease” formula flick. In retrospect, I admit having a personal connection to the film’s subject colored my expectations going into the film.

Martin Greene was a history teacher, a political activist, a book collector and my grandfather. Because he passed before I was born, one of the only things I knew about him – similar to the only thing many of us know about Stephen Hawking — is that he had ALS. After hearing family accounts of what it was like to live with Lou Gherig’s Disease, I knew I would be on my guard, fully expecting this film to distort and romanticize the realities of this horrible disease. Perhaps what I feared most was the possibility that the disease would overwhelm the film.

To my surprise and delight, this was one of the many obstacles that producer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, along with director James Marsh, overcame.

McCarten was fully aware of the challenges he faced with this project. In fact, it took eight years of rejection before he gained the rights and support required to fulfill his dream of bringing this story to the screen. Many had little faith that a story filled with physics jargon and with a central character who is physically immobilized would be interesting to audiences.

McCarten was adamant not to tell the story solely from Hawkin’s point of view. Rather, MacCaten decided from the beginning to write the screenplay based on Jane Hawking’s autobiography, Traveling to Infinity.

When I discussed with McCarten the many obstacles this project faced, it became clear he never feared them; in fact, he welcomed them as artistic challenges. Above all else, he was determined to show the many different sides, perspectives and details of a story many believe they already know.

For example, co-producer Lisa Bruce noted, “A lot of people don’t even think about Stephen Hawkin’s domestic life, much less know that he walked and talked. And they certainly don’t know that he fathered children.”

This humanistic approach gives the viewer a deeper and unique look into this man’s life, allowing the viewer to see more than the iconic genius. We see a father, a husband and a life filled with hope and humor.

McCarten, noted that among his biggest challenges was how to present the sometimes incomprehensible concepts and present them in a manner that is both digestible and relatable to the common viewer.

One effective technique employed was the use of humor. Humor, perhaps more than any other technique, creates a bridge that allows viewers to relate to the most foreign of subjects, and devastating of circumstances. An example can be seen when we are first introduced to Hawking’s newly engineered wheelchair, attached with a speech-generating device. This scene could have been maudlin, or filled with convoluted explanations of the scientific engineering behind the device. Instead, upon hearing Hawking’s new voice, his wife Jane remarks with surprise, “It’s American.” This approach gives insight into the first appearance of the now infamous device, but does so through a true human and humorous lens. We are not simply introduced to the machine, but shown what that moment was like for these characters as real people, with real and relatable reactions.

Eddie Redmayne, who portrays Hawking with wonderful accuracy, studied his subject intently to determine how to portray Hawking’s notorious wit, his mannerisms and his outlook. He studied every twinkle in his character’s eyes, every twitch of a smile and the subtle yet incredible expressiveness of his eyebrows. His homework pays off: Redmayne is exceptional in a role where, for much of the movie, he must show emotion only through a look in his eyes. While Redmayne’s body movement work was certainly aimed at giving a realistic portrayal, it also shines light on the disease itself.

Overall, the film proved most exceptional in making the science accessible to its audience. As surprising as it may sound coming from a blog centered on examining scientific accuracy in films, I take umbrage to the argument that the film needed Hawking standing at a blackboard throughout the film.

Instead, the film showed real people struggling, explaining and discussing complex ideas in common, real-life settings. For example, during a scene in a typical domestic setting, Jane Hawking (played by Felicity Jones) uses a pea and a potato to demonstrate to her children the difference between quantum theory and general relativity. This approach shows how the complexities of the film relate in our everyday real life.

The film continued to demonstrate the science behind its subject through more subtle uses of metaphorical imagery, such as a beautiful image of cream swirling around a cup of coffee (i.e the region around a black hole).

On a slightly more personal note, the portrayal of motor neuron disease was more than accurate. It was truly quite astonishing. I was shocked at how seemingly flawless Redmayne’s portrayal was. The hands that became not just immobile, but misshapen; the sharpness of the mind reflected in the eyes of the otherwise deadened body; it all rang true.

Redmayne knew the challenge he took on with this role. Redmayne shared his tireless work with vocal coach Julia Wilson-Dickson and movement director Alex Reynolds. Redmayne explained, “I felt I had a responsibility of portraying this as a real condition.” In order to live up to this responsibility Redmayne consulted with a doctor who specializes in motor neuron disease. Redmayne then worked with Wilson-Dickson to create a climbing-numbers chart that helped him gauge what stage of deterioration he was in, in a particular scene.

This technique had a great impact on how Marsh directed and shot each scene. A character with a condition that, by definition, diminishes the amount of physical action that can take place in a given scene presented a major obstacle: how to avoid a static, boring movie?

Redmayne’s stunning physical performance helped Marsh overcome this obstacle. Marsh’s direction and actors’ — particularly Redmayne’s — performance engage the audience with the slightest shift of movement. Even if I did not have the stories of my grandfather’s experience with ALS to compare with, the consuming performances result in nothing short of an accurate portrayal of both the technical and emotional elements of the disease.

In the end, this was not meant to be a science lesson. This was meant to tell an arresting story of Hawking’s struggle to overcome tremendous obstacles to prove his theories and maintain his relationships. The care and accuracy with which the filmmakers presented this is evident and rewarding.

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The Hollywood Medical Reporter – Hollywood and Heroin http://brainblogger.com/2014/11/01/hollywood-medical-reporter-heroin/ http://brainblogger.com/2014/11/01/hollywood-medical-reporter-heroin/#comments Sat, 01 Nov 2014 11:00:35 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=17469 The media’s interest in addiction is not new. As far back as the silent era, Human Wreckage (1923) portrayed the dangers of drug addiction. Later, we had the “Don’t Let This Happen To Your Child” cautionary tales, such as Marijuana: Assassin of Youth (1935) and the better-known camp classic, Reefer Madness (1938). A decade later, The Lost Weekend (1945) won Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Picture for its groundbreaking story of a struggling writer battling alcoholism.

Ten years later, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) became the first major Hollywood movie to deal with drug use and addiction in stark and realistic terms. All these films, though, are a far cry from the gritty, oftentimes gruesome, high definition sweat withdrawals today’s audiences have grown used to.

The way film and television have portrayed drug use has undergone a distinct shift over the years. Unfortunately, the change has not always been towards accuracy. While the stigma surrounding addiction has decreased exponentially from the Reefer Madness days, and the media now freely exploits these conditions in dramatic – and sometimes melodramatic – ways, what audiences see nowadays rarely enlightens them.

The emphasis is on the gritty and the real. No, make that the “real looking.” There is much more care put into aesthetics than into the accuracy of the story.

As a result, it was both sobering and encouraging when I first learned of Roxi Blews. Wolf Brothers Entertainment’s latest film tells the story of a young woman who, after witnessing the tragic murder of her brother, succumbs to the dark world of heroin abuse.

I was first introduced to Screenwriter and Executive Producer T.E Kendall back in 2011. Still on the East Coast at the time, I was working for Michael Lynne and Bob Shaye’s development company, Unique Features. While sifting through the finals of the Motion Picture Nichol Fellowship, I encountered a script entitled Georgia Skies. The screenplay, written by T.E Kendall, tells the story of an interracial couple during the 19th century, who risk death to pursue their forbidden love in the Deep South. Years later, Kendall continues to take on some of the most riveting and relevant subject matters of our time with rare depth and deftness.

The first and perhaps most significant thing Kendall said about Roxi Blews is that it is greater than the sum of its parts. While it is fiction, it has an unbreakable tie to countless true events, real people, and life in general.

Too often, films simply exploit the aesthetics of the situation in an attempt to heighten the viewer’s sense of reality. As a result, reality is heightened beyond the true reality of the story.

Thrillers such as Limitless (2011), while not typically thought of as films about addiction, are based entirely on drug use. In Limitless, Bradley Cooper’s character is introduced to a miracle drug that, in the vein of 2014’s Lucy, helps unlock all his cognitive potential, allowing him to write a novel in a day, outwit the cleverest and most dangerous of villains, and, of course, get the girl.

Limitless before and after
While the film is filled with exciting chase scenes and high-stakes action, I would doubt most audiences were left contemplating the effects performance enhancing drug use has on society. This is not to say every film needs to provide such insight. Limitless accomplished exactly what it set out to do – entertain. If it had digressed into a bleeding-heart, after-school special warning kids not to sell Adderall to each other, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stomach it.

That said, I do wonder why a film that depicts drug use in such a casual (albeit justified) way is rated PG-13 while a film such as Requiem for a Dream (2000), which shows the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is rated R. This is not to say I believe that the latter film should be seen by underage children. However, it does feel a bit peculiar that, as long as there aren’t a certain number of curse words and/or mature aesthetic images, 13 year olds are waved into theaters disregarding any unconscious take-away from watching a film about a cool guy who takes a pill and becomes even cooler.

The cast and crew of Roxi Blews have no intention of ignoring their connection and subsequent responsibility to real life. Furthermore, every single person involved is so because of a deep-seeded desire to create a project fueled by passion and with the power to spread awareness…and impact lives.

It is because of this passion that the Hollywood Medical Reporter and everyone else at Brain Blogger took notice. In fact, Brain Blogger Founder, Dr. Shaheen Lakhan has officially become the film’s medical consultant. He joins the incredible crew, along with director Keith Holland, producer Christopher Wolf, co-producer Deidra Wayans and screenwriter T.E. Kendall. The stellar list of talent continues with the cast of Gregg Wayans, Kim Estes, Drew Wade Taylor, Rafael Zubizarreta and Shey Lyn Zanotti.

This wonderful group of passionate artists welcomed me into a one of a kind behind-the-scenes experience where I had the privilege of speaking one-on-one with the entire cast and crew and sitting in on their first official table reading. In a series of upcoming articles, the Hollywood Medical Reporter will share this experience of exclusive interviews, on-set developments and behind-the-scenes news for Roxi Blews.

Learn more at Roxi Blew’s Webite.

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The Hollywood Medical Reporter – The Land of Oz http://brainblogger.com/2014/09/07/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-the-land-of-oz/ http://brainblogger.com/2014/09/07/the-hollywood-medical-reporter-the-land-of-oz/#respond Sun, 07 Sep 2014 11:00:42 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=16865 Ethics are murky when it comes to the depiction of medical science on television shows and films. Despite a growing consensus that many of these shows dangerously misinform the public, there is no clear consensus for a solution. The primary reason for this situation: these forms of media are designed as entertainment, not education. As a result, their artistic license – freedom of expression – frees them from much regulation.

However, this argument reflects dated preconceptions about the media, and television specifically. Broadcast television of today has nothing more than a tangential relationship with television of the past. Nothing is time-dependent anymore. You can watch whatever you want wherever you want, on a TV on a PC, on a phone, whatever. Television shows are therefore ubiquitous in society. More importantly, television has become acutely aware of it own power, not only to influence but to make audiences believe in a program’s “reality”.

This situation has given birth to (among other things) what many have deemed “The Dr. Oz Effect.”

Dr. Mehet Oz, once just a recurring guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, today is the star of his own Emmy Award-winning Dr. Oz Show. Among the top-rated daily television programs in the US, the show is only one piece of the medical-media franchise he has now become.

Oz’s success and influence should not come as any surprise. When presented with a handsome doctor who, we are told, serves as the vice-chairman of the department of surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, in addition to having the coveted Oprah stamp of approval, why would you think to question his medical advice?

If his intent is not to influence medical understanding and subsequent action, then why not call it The Oz Show? It’s “Dr Oz,” thank you, a title that confirms credibility and trust. He’s got a joint MD and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Wharton Business School, after receiving his undergraduate degree from Harvard University. He directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Such a resume commands authority. This ain’t no fictitious doctor on a medical drama – he’s the real thing.

Dr. Oz welds the power of a primetime infomercial, a medical news report and a televangelist all in one. This immeasurable influence is evidenced by the countless times a product featured on his show experiences a radical, overnight boost in sales. Such strong and consistent correlations negate any argument that television personalities like Dr. Oz are not consciously contributing to the proliferation of medical scams that endorse false and/or misleading information in the guise as helpful medical facts.

For example, in November 2013, Cleopatra Mcdouglad of Los Angeles signed up for a free trial offer for a product advertised on Facebook claiming to be endorsed by the renowned Dr. Oz. Because, like millions of others, she hold Dr. Oz’s words in great regard, she ordered the “miracle” supplements of garcinia cambogia and green coffee extract, after being told the only charge was going to be $7 for shipping. In the end, though, Mcdouglad learned she had been scammed into a membership with recurring shipments at nearly $100 per bottle; she was charged $600 from August through October.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no legal power to regulate weight loss supplements. As such, companies can make claims, lacking any semblance of scientific backing (or rational and ethical thought). Because no approval is required, the FDA can only investigate products after reports of harm have already transpired. Such a system is only reactive, not preventative.

There have been increasing efforts aimed at keeping regulations up with the times. For example, Title 16 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR), Chapter I of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Subchapter B of “Guides and Trade Practice Rules, Part 255: this addresses the “Guides Concerning Use Of Endorsements And Testimonials In Advertising.” Despite the regulation’s efforts, it makes a distinct point not to purport any absolute and clear rules for evaluating or even defining endorsements and testimonials. In May, they sued the sellers of Green Coffee Beans for “deceiving consumers through fake news sites and invented health claims.”

Many of these advertisers used video of Dr. Oz promoting the miraculous benefits of Pure Green Coffee. Dr. Oz did this in full awareness of the feeble scientific evidence supporting green coffee bean extract as an effective weight loss supplement.

On June 15th, 2014, Dr. Oz faced a Congressional hearing, with specific investigation into his promotion of weight loss products on his show. Sen. Claire McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate’s Consumer Protection panel, said, “I’ve got no problem with celebrity endorsement of any product but I do have a problem when a science-based doctor says something is a miracle when there’s no science to back it up.”

Here are a few quotes made by Dr. Oz in past episodes of his show:

“You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight loss cure for every body type: It’s green coffee extract.”

“I’ve got the number-one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat: It’s raspberry ketone.”

“Garcinia cambogia: It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”

Sen. McCaskill noted how, “the scientific community is almost monolithic against you [Oz] in terms of the efficacy of those three products [the three aforementioned quotes] that you called miracles.”

While I share the Senator’s outrage, I believe she would agree that we know the answer. While Dr. Oz told the committee that he avoids endorsing specific brands outright, his website lists six “trusted partners”: Aquaphor, Eucerin, Meramucil, Omron, Schiff and Walgreens.

When actor Chris Robinson endorsed Vicks’ new cough syrup in a 1984 advertisement, he said, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Oz gets to say, “I AM a doctor and I play one on TV.”

The Dr. Oz Show, and others like it, demonstrates a media culture that is actually taking steps backward in ethical responsibility. Now personalities like Dr. Oz are saying, “I’m actually a medical doctor, and let me show you this magical new product that happens to be for sale.”

Dr. Oz, admits to using “flowery language,” on his show. Furthermore, he expressed regret that his “passionate” language, “ended up not being helpful but incendiary and it provided fodder for unscrupulous advertisers. Yet, in the same breath, Dr. Oz claims he is the victim of scam ads using his name, and giving viewers/consumers the false impression that he supports the given products’ sales.

This defense eludes me.

This is a bona fide medical professional that elects hyperbole over scientific fact. Such behavior is not merely reprehensible but reflects the antithesis of a true health professional.

Dr. Oz cannot hide behind good intentions, victimization, and certainly not ignorance. The fact is this man can provide good, ethical advice. But, he chooses to trumpet pseudoscience to a trusting audience who he knows cannot separate the fiction surrounding his facts.

Image via Filipe Frazao / Shutterstock.

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