Neuroscience as unregulated plot device.

Updated as of 1/17/2010: see end of post.

I freely admit to being a geek. This admission should hardly be surprising coming from a woman born and raised in the heart of Silicon Valley. No matter what your personal preference for defining a “geek”, I am confident that I will fall within that definition.

I mention this explicitly as a lead in for the following statement: I consume a lot of science fiction, whether in book, television, or movie form. Ever since reading the Lord of the Rings in 2nd grade, I have been an avid follower of science fictional works. (Note: I am well aware that Tolkein’s massive work is Fantasy, not Science Fiction. But there isn’t much of a difference to a 2nd grader who just discovered the SciFi/Fantasy section of the library). To further establish my credentials, let me say that I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my parents, Stargate SG1 for 5 glorious years with my siblings (we came discovered it during the 5th season), and have recently enjoyed the offerings of Whedon’s Dollhouse and Cameron’s Avatar.

It was these last two that have motivated this post, with its rather lengthy biographical introduction.

Warning: comments that could be uncharitably described as whiny neuroscience nitpicking follow.

Over the past few months, I have become more aware of the use of Neuroscience as a plot device. Science, or more accurately, technobabble, has long been a hallowed institution of the science fiction genre. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Stargate SG1 has most likely enjoyed the wonderful Amanda Tapping spouting some completely incomprehensible sequence of words, cobbled together by the writers with the sole purpose of indicating that SCIENCE was occuring.

For the most part, I take such babble  in the spirit it is meant: as a stand-in for scientific procedures and thinking that are required to be attended, but not comprehended. But with many science fiction shows now using neuroscience as a basis for their “science”, I have been less able to suspend my belief. No longer are the syllables of the technobabble unrecognizable. Indeed, some of the phrases are highly recognizable. However, they remain completely incomprehensible.

An example. A few months ago, I was watching Joss Whedon’s soon-to-disappear show Dollhouse. I won’t try to explain the premise, but needless to say it involves wiping the personalities of people (“Dolls”) and filling the resulting blank brains with made-to-order personalities. The show has established that these personalities involve creating memories, feelings, the whole enchilada, by manipulating brain connections. Lots of pretty lights and pictures are used to illustrate the concept. Of course, from a neuroscience perspective, our currently level of understanding completely prohibits such a feat. We can hardly delete a persons personality, much less load a new one, if we don’t know what generates personalities and conscious thought in the first place. Despite this, my large experience with Science Fiction allowed me to happily ignore such a technicality, mentally allowing Mr. Whedon to use neuroscience as a plot device to advance his own storytelling agenda.

But about a month ago, I was struck by one scene in particular. During this scene, the main brain-altering-technician (Topher, for those of you who have seen the show) is making with the brain erasing. During the course of his rather frantic manipulations, he calls out something along the lines of “LTP has been de-potentiated!” Topher has just told us that he’s de-potentiated the long term potentiation. Sounds amazing, except for the uncomfortable fact that LTP is a process whereby neuronal synapses are potentiated. So LTP itself would not be de-potentiated. The synapses that had undergone LTP would be de-potentiated.

I know this is a minor detail. And I’m not complaining about the dialogue, or the scene, or the episode, or the show. But that bit of dialogue, and my falling-out-of-the-chair-sputtering reaction (for which I was thoroughly smacked by my viewing partner), made me think about how neuroscience is presented in popular media.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Neuroscience is becoming increasingly integrated into popular culture. Avatar, which is on track to being the highest earning movie of all time, is heavily dependent upon some tricky (and completely improbable) neuroscience. For instance (and ignoring the whole subject of transferring consciousness to another body): claiming that a human brain was “100% neurally mapped” to an avatar brain, despite the fact that the avatar brain was obviously larger, and contained neural connections for integrating sensory and motor functions for two extra limbs. Limbs which the human consciousness inside had no functional problem with. Human minds are remarkably fragile when it comes to removing limbs from their neural connections. Why shouldn’t adding limbs be any different?

As Neuroscience enters the public consciousness, there will be more and more examples of the popular media using highly specific neuroscience concepts to advance plot lines. I worry about the portrayal of the neuroscientists, as well as the willy-nilly co-opting of neuroscience terms. Although the script writers of Dollhouse, Avatar, and others are undoubtedly highly educated, can they be trusted with the language of neuroscience? Should they be encouraged towards requesting oversight? Should highly neuroscience-dependent scripts be run by actual neuroscientists before they are unleashed upon the general public?

Oversight of script writing by experts is not a new idea. It is now common that any fictional endeavor involving the military is assigned a liaison who ensures that the military is accurately (and positively) portrayed. Stargate SG1, for instance, had an Air Force liaison for many years, and even features real Air Force officers as guest stars. A viable argument for such a practice (the oversight, not the guest starring) is that the writers needed experts in how the Air Force functions to maintain a high level of credibility in their scripts.

Should science be any different?

Another show, FlashForward (one that I do not watch), recently suggested that the reason for a worldwide blackout that killed 20 million people was a “National Linear Accelerator Project”, based in Palo Alto, California, that was conducting “proton-driven plasma-wakefield acceleration” experiments. Now, there isn’t a National Linear Accelerator Project in Palo Alto, but there is the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Following the airing of the FlashForward episode in question, SLAC released a press release stating that SLAC does conduct plasma-wakefield acceleration experiments, but not on protons, as such technology does not exist. SLAC explained plasma-wakefield acceleration, the reason behind the experiments, and the fact that plasma-wakefield experiments could NOT cause a “flashforward”:

Is there any way that plasma-wakefield experiments could cause a “flashforward”?

No. Plasma-wakefield acceleration is just an advanced technique to boost particles to high energies, something that particle physicists have been doing for decades. Even the most speculative theories rooted in real physics make no prediction that anything like a flashforward could occur.

“Although we can use particle accelerators to essentially look backward in time to recreate the conditions of the universe soon after the big bang, there is no known way to look into the future,” says Mark Hogan, chief experimental scientist for the plasma wakefield program at SLAC’s FACET.”

I see a problem with a situation where a research group feels the need to release a press release distancing themselves for the actions of fictional scientists (albiet ones belonging to an entity so obviously based upon the real group). Without the quick thinking of the SLAC communications department, would there have been some people who became suspicious of the real life SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory based upon the fictional actions of FlashForward’s National Linear Accelerator Project? I think there would be.

As the neuroscience that appears in fictional contexts becomes more similar to real-life theories and advances, it will become critical that Neuroscientists become involved in the creation of our fictional counterparts.

A shining example of such cooperation is the show Numb3rs, which features a gaggle of mathematicians helping solve FBI crimes in Los Angeles. The math in the show, which is regularly used to solve complex crimes, is actually written by mathematicians, and the mathematical concepts behind the shows usage are published by the show. During my college calculus course, we were given the math problems associated with the episodes and published by the shows. Particularly clever mathematics professors (at least the ones at Bryn Mawr College) are using the charismatic mathematicians written into the show to encourage interest in higher level math.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if neuroscience could do the same? So many shows currently airing involve neuroscience concepts. I don’t watch Fringe, but I from what I have glimpsed, I imagine lots of faux-neuroscience is casually thrown around. Could neuroscientists band together to insist upon more sensical use of our field in the fictional media? Without constraining the fictional advances required to advance plot-lines, neuroscientists could help guide writers towards faux-neuroscience that is more plausible, helping to avoid mistakes in basic neuroscience concepts. Wouldn’t such an effort, at the very least, advertise our field to the general public, sparking interest in the real advances in neuroscience?

I would argue that the answers to both questions are an emphatic yes.

Update 1/17/2010: While reading a NYTimes article by one Charles McGrath about the upcoming Starz miniseries Spartacus: Blood and Sand, I came across this quote by head writer Steven S. DeKnight:

“And within reason, he said, he also wants the show to be accurate. He even hired a couple of Ph.D. candidates in classics to pelt him with memos and e-mail messages about details like whether or not Capua had a governor and the wine-drinking habits of Thracians. “We bend history, of course,” he said. “But we try never to break it.””

Here’s to hoping Mr. DeKnight’s example inspires his colleagues who are currently working with more science-based themes.