Tracing the influence of present-day brain research on mainstream media and the film industry is a fascinating but routinely frustrating endeavor. The hope is that filmmakers and advertising executives would use their powerful platforms as an opportunity to engage their viewers and buyers with real science, and to use the few opportunities they have to slip in a brain reference to really make sure they are saying something that is based on current understandings. The optimistic result could be a gradual correction in the public consciousness of some prevalent urban legends about the brain.
But more often than not, we see mass media take the easy road– the road that doesn’t require consulting real scientists or taking a genuine interest in scientific accuracy. Instead, the brain is often used for the alluring and impenetrable aura it exudes to further a fantastical plot or sell more products. It is one thing to stay entirely in the realm of fantasy– it is another to claim a basis in the real world and then to get your facts wrong, leading a viewership on to believe that what you’re saying is right.
In the past years, we’ve seen Avatar– with some significant gaps in logic though overall a genuinely intriguing take on a global neural network– and Inception, which, in my opinion, made the mistake of trying to ground its fantastical worlds in actual insights about actual dreaming that humans do (Ellen Page’s endless scenes of rationalizing how this was all possible), but seemed to take absolutely nothing from modern sleep and dreaming research.
Today there are two more significant mentions of the brain swirling in mass media. One is the trailer for the film Limitless, which opened this past weekend in the U.S. Let’s just deal with the trailer, which first grabbed my attention when a male character says the following to Bradley Cooper:
“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain? This lets you access all of it.”
Cut to flashy digital animations of brain tissue. And another generation that will continue to believe that what “they” say about only using a fraction of your brain is still correct. This is an incredibly lazy and irresponsible tidbit to include in a trailer that has now been seen by millions of people around the world. From a Scientific American article published in 2008:
Though an alluring idea, the “10 percent myth” is so wrong it is almost laughable, says neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Although it’s true that at any given moment all of the brain’s regions are not concurrently firing, brain researchers using imaging technology have shown that, like the body’s muscles, most are continually active over a 24-hour period. “Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain,” says John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
In the same vein of mainstream irresponsibility, a new Buick car commercial currently running on all the major networks makes an outrageous claim about the brain’s daily function.
The voiceover begins: “Humans have three thousand thoughts a day. The engine of the Regal Turbo has a hundred and twenty five million thoughts a second.”
I could not believe this ad copy could make it through any rational modern day chain of command. Where did this tidbit come from?
And it goes on, making a completely impossible comparison between the “thoughts” of a mind, however you quantify those, and the “thoughts” of a car’s engine, attempting to mine the allure of the brain to sell more cars.
One can’t even begin to counter this ad because it’s not clear where their research process began and ended, and where they plucked that number from. If you ask any respectable and humble neuroscientist today, the answer you’d get is that there is no way we can even quantify a single thought, let alone figure out how many we have in a day, with current scientific methods. Not even close.
But if you had to guess, just feel it out, does 3,000 a day– which averages out to somewhere between 2 and 3 thoughts a minute– seem intuitively right to you? If the guy driving that car in the Buick ad is having just 2 or 3 thoughts a minute I pray his car is really having 125 million a second, for his safety and the safety of us all.
Perhaps Buick ripped the 3,000 thoughts a day factoid from a quote by A-Rod’s performance coach, Jim Fannin, in a 2004 New York Times article:
”Superstars don’t think like everyone else,” Fannin said. ”The average person has 2,000 to 3,000 thoughts a day, and 60 percent of the average person’s thoughts are in chaos. The superstar has 1,100 to 1,300 thoughts a day. They eliminate worry, envy, jealousy, embarrassment and anger. The superstar thinks a lot less and holds a thought longer.” [source]
If A-Rod only has 1,100 thoughts a day, that may make sense. And maybe Jim Fannin now writes copy for Buick ads.