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Movies and sleep: myths and realities

6min reading
Movies and sleep: myths and realities

Besides eating, drinking, or driving, it’s rare that the movies we watch focus on the everyday mundanities of life. For the sake of entertainment value, they prefer to focus on alien invasions, dramatic romances, and magic tricks. Can’t say we’re complaining! But one piece of everyday life that continues to find its way into theaters? The brain and its many, many oddities.

Movies and the brain: a long story!

There’s just something about the mystery of what happens inside our heads that Hollywood loves to unpack. But after endless movies nights (and tubs of popcorn to tide us over), we’ve noticed something. Movies have absolutely no idea what goes on in our brains. Whether you’re watching a dream within a dream within a dream or an AI machine falling in love, the films we know and love, frankly, have a lot wrong when it comes to the brain. Here, we unpack a few (including what two got right). Let’s offer our edits on what would’ve made these movies more realistic.

Inception, 2010

inception movies Image from Collider

Ah, the mother of all brain science movies. In Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster smash, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a thief who uses sleep science to enter people’s subconscious dreams, stealing secrets and implanting impulses. He and his team of inception experts are put to the task when they’re hired for the ultimate job. This job is to convince a man to make a massive business decision by infiltrating his dream.

Now, despite this all sounding totally plausible, there are a few scientific reasons Inception enthusiasts would have a tough time finding their way into “dream world.” A little background. Most of our vivid dreaming actually occurs during REM sleep, one of the few sleep stages we enter during the night. In the movie, in order to put their targets to sleep in the first place, Leo and his team sedate them. With what one could assume are very strong sleeping pills! Unfortunately, though, research shows that many of the sleeping pills on the market today don’t promote REM sleep at all. It means that the chances of having a dream during an Ambien-addled sleep become that much rarer. Maybe if they’d truly sedated the targets, it would’ve been easier for them to fall into a dream-like state.

Plus, research also shows that it’s impossible to create faces you’ve never seen before in dreams. It means that Leo and his team would’ve had to have met their subjects before to appear in their dreams, defeating the secrecy of the measure. Still, bonus points for an insane amount of creativity, Inception.

Her, 2013

 her movies brain

Image from Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence.

In Spike Jonze’s critically acclaimed Her, Theodore Twombly is a single, antisocial Los Angeles man. He purchases one of the first artificial intelligence operating systems named Samantha. He proceeds then to fall in love with her. Eventually though (we guess we should warn, spoiler alert), Samantha reveals that she’s having a similar relationship with thousands of other people. She reveals that she’s evolving beyond humanity to explore the remainder of her existence too. Just a light, casual love story.

As blog Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence points out, there are small elements of the film that seem out of sync with reality. But for the most part, a future where AI and humans can co-exist — and technically fall in love — isn’t entirely far off. What Kurzweil has trouble with, however, is the rate at which Samantha and the rest of her AI friends are evolving. It seems that Samantha’s capacity for human relationships is far greater than the average human’s brain. So much so that she decides to explore the potentially greater elements of having artificial intelligence (i.e., a human brain) that may be possible for us humans to experience.

While this whole plotline might seem entirely unrealistic, don’t be so skeptical. Moore’s Law catches up with us and technology continues to advance. It’s only a matter of time before AIs and machine learning outpace us all. If we don’t do enough to enhance ourselves and make sure we’re as optimized as possible, we’ll see huge disruptions in the socio-economic structures of the world. And let’s face it — we’re all already in love with our smartphones anyway.

Lucy, 2014

Lucy moviesImage from The Lovely Side.

We’ve all heard the myth: “The average person only uses 10 percent of their brain.” That’s exactly what Luc Besson’s Lucy centers on. Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a woman exposed to a drug that gives her exceptional brainpower. Yes, allowing her to theoretically use 100 percent of her brain.

But as Scientific American points out, this myth is just that — a myth. The idea that humans have 90% of their brains just sitting around empty has never actually been proven. In fact, by the sheer principles of evolution, this doesn’t make any sense. Humans and their organs evolve to both grow and function properly. They phase out parts of them that aren’t utilized or essential to our survival. Brain tissue being unused would surely fall into that category.

Plus, in neuroscience research, patients who’ve lost even less than 90 percent of their brains have felt catastrophic effects. As for the drug, Lucy is exposed to, some medications like Ritalin and Provigil do exist. But they’re more for focusing, rather than lighting up the whole brain at once. And let’s not forget how sleep fits in. The aim of being limitless with these drugs discounts the human body’s need to sleep and restore itself — without which, it will perish.

Despite these errors, Lucy proves an exciting look at superhuman brain capacity. What would you do with 100 percent of your brain? We’ve got a few ideas…

Sleeping Beauty, 1959

Sleeping beauty movies Image from The Disney Wikia.

Two words for you: 100. Years. That’s how long Aurora, the princess in Sleeping Beauty, sleeps for in the original fairy tale. Now, we know this one is a pretty obvious one. Aside from the absurdity that anyone could actually sleep for 100 years without getting hungry or bored or dying, Aurora would’ve needed one serious sleeping pill to manage to stay asleep for that long. Pharmacological drugs containing the molecules gaboxadol and tiagabine can help your brain sustain deep sleep for longer periods of time — but even then, as Aurora moved through the natural sleep cycles of light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep, it’s unlikely that nothing happened in 100 years to wake her. The Disney film’s brief afternoon nap seems a bit more realistic. A classic story, but save this one for the kids — we’re too jaded.

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