Neuroscience at the Movies

Cognitive Impairment

This lesson was developed by Ms. Heather Stewart, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant
Cognitive impairment has many causes. Genetic abnormalities and perinatal or early childhood trauma may lead to brain damage resulting in mental impairment. Often the condition reflects an insufficiency of vital elements such as oxygen, nutrients or blood during development of the brain. Such problems may disrupt information processing and learning and development may proceed at a slower pace and to a lesser degree than in individuals without damage.

There is a wide range of mental and emotional development among individuals with cogntive impairment. Some will need near full-time care and attention in order to avoid inadvertently harming themselves while others will be able to live autonomously, with a job, relationships and other responsibilities.

Whatever their level of self-sufficiency, the mentally-challenged individuals portrayed in these films retain a child-like innocence and naivete. It is this simple, uncomplicated viewpoint, unconditional trust and love rarely seen in more "intelligent" and complex personalities that endear these characters not only to their family and friends in the films, but also to their audiences. The uncomplicated candor exhibited by the lovable "wise fools" such as Chancy Gardner (Being There) and Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump) is refreshing. Their unconditional faith and trust inspire love, compassion and protectiveness in their close associates - whether teachers (Charly, Tim), friends (Being There, Forrest Gump, Of Mice and Men) or family members (Heart of the Dragon, What's Eating Gilbert Grape) - and seem all the more precious for their purity.

Themes to explore in these films include simple vs. complex, free vs. not free, natural vs unnatural. Often a mentally-challenged chararacter comes up with a simple solution when placed among other characters in the midst of a very complex situation (e.g., Forrest Gump in Vietnam, Chauncy Gardner with Politicians). The message appears to be that too much though and analysis is what makes life and its situations difficult and it takes a "simple" mind to see the simple truth. Other concepts or imagery reflecting this theme include children vs. adults, innocence vs. worldliness, children's desires vs. those of adults.

Regarding freedom, the mentally-challenged character is usually depicted in these films as "freer" - of spirit, of the burdens of thought and complex situations and needs, even of money. In contrast, more "intelligent" characters are bound by their complex, heavy thoughts, needs and situations. Imagery reflecting concepts of freedom include light, lightness, happiness, peace, carefree nature, and child-like. "Bound" imagery and concepts include darkness, heaviness, worry, unhappiness.

Natural vs. unnatural imagery includes outdoor, natural settings associated with the "simple" characters (even the title character's name in "Forrest Gump") contrasted with indoor, man-made setting associated with other characters such as a house or mansion (Being There) or laboratory (Charly). Other "unnatural" imagery includes man-made items such as machinery (Harley in Charly), weaponry (Heart of the Dragon).

Questions to consider while viewing these:

  • How were the individuals in these films regarded by their family and friends?
  • Were the individuals who were cognitively impaired being taken advantage of? If so, when and by whom? Think about a situation in which you were taken advantage of. Discuss the ethics of preying upon others' lack of knowledge or experience.
  • What were some of the simple viewpoints expressed by the mentally-challenged characters in these films? Explain how a simple viewpoint can also be considered wise. What is a "wise fool?"
  • In what ways were the mentally-challenged individuals "free?" How were other characters in the film not free?
  • Does "simpler" seem more natural? Discuss the ways in which nature, the characters and life are seen as both simple and complex.



Elementary School

Rated: PG


104 min.

Rich, multi-layered story of a man given an opportunity to change his circumstance - ahead of its time in the idea of "fixing" or "enhancing" brain function with a transplant. Cliff Robertson nabbed an Oscar for his portrayal of simple-minded Charly when his IQ is turbo-boosted to genius-level and back again. Charly's transformation is all the more poignant because of his self-awareness of his limitations - what he's gained and what he's losing. At one point he's even working to effect his own cure to prevent the inevitable reversal of his enhanced state. Claire Bloom stars as Ms. Kinian - his caseworker, friend and romantic interest - who shares Charly's triumph and ultimate loss. Memorable quote: "How'd you feel if you were dumber'n a mouse?"

Themes to explore with younger students: Was Charly jealous of Algernon, why or why not? If you could have an operation to "boost" something about yourself, what feature would you change and why? Would you change even if it was just temporary? How about if it left you with even less ability than before the operation? Why did Charly change his mind and not want to marry the woman he loved? Themes to explore with older students: Simple vs. complex (Charly, wall art in Charly's room), natural vs. unnatural (Charly in the park, on his Harley). Compare and contrast: Charly vs. Johnny Mnemonic - brain enhancement and "mirror" images; Charly vs. Awakenings - getting better then worse, boat imagery; Charly vs. Forrest Gump - self-awareness of limitations, '60s imagery; Charly vs. Tim - development and outcome of romantic relationship, self- and community acceptance and individual, cultural and temporal factors that may have influenced this.



Elementary School

Rated: PG


94 min.

This is a full-hearted, compassionate film set in Australia, in which Tim Melville, a likeable and mentally-challenged young man who is often taken advantage of by his co-workers, is befriended and employed by Mary Horton (Piper Laurie). As the friendship between Mary and Tim deepens, Mary herself is accused of taking advantage of Tim's condition. Fortunately, they show us that true love is more than matching IQ's.

Themes to explore with younger students: Was it right for Tim's co-workers to take advantage of him? Why did Tim's family feel protective of him with other people, even though he was grown? Was Mary a good friend to Tim? In what ways? In what ways did she protect him also? Themes to explore with older students: Did Tim need protecting? Was Mary trying to change Tim by teaching him? Did Mary love Tim? Give reasons for answers. Compare and contrast: Tim vs. Charly, Tim vs. Being There - development and outcome of romantic relationship, self- and community acceptance and individual, cultural and temporal factors that may have influenced this.

Being There


Middle School

Rated: PG


130 min.

"You have the gift of being very natural." Tremendous understated comedy in which a middle-aged, mentally-challenged man, Chauncy Gardner (Peter Sellers) is turned out from his lifelong, comfortable, sheltered existence (he wakes to classical music, then watches cartoons, then tends the gardens), upon the sudden death of his benefactor. Chance throws him in the path of Eve Rand (Shirley Maclaine), wife of dying billionaire and kingmaker, Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas, Oscar-winning role). While recuperating at their home, he becomes the toast of Washington ("He's very intense","I hear he speaks eight languages and has a degree in law as well as medicine.") because his simple statements about gardening ("there is new growth in the spring" and "you've got to trim the branches") are interpreted as profound truths on issues of the economy, media, politics, etc. This is carried to its logical extreme - you've GOT to be there. Many memorable scenes (including final one of Chauncy walking on water) and side-splitting outtakes. "I'd like to meet a reasonable man."

Themes to explore with younger students: How did Chauncy get his name? Do you think you could learn everything you need to know about life from TV? Give some examples of things you can and can't learn about life and people from watching television. Does it seem likely that someone who knows so little could actually get to be president?

Themes to explore with older students: Was Chauncy a believable character? Was he pulling a "snow job"? Why or why not? Explain this movie in terms of Abe Lincoln's quote, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time." Compare and contrast: Being There vs. Forrest Gump and the concept of "wise fool".

Forrest Gump


High School

Rated: PG-13


118 min.

"Life is like a box of chocolates," and this movie is definitely a chocolate-covered cherry in that box. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Forrest (Tom Hanks, Oscar role) waits on a bench at a bus stop and assails whoever comes with his charmed life's tale which spans the defining decades of the Boomer generation and encompasses first-hand experience of every major socio-political event during that time. Though slow-witted, he is fast-footed and this talent serves him well, especially in college football and Viet Nam, winning him numerous honors and presidential handshakes. Very funny and clever splicing of Forrest into historical news footage. But despite his success at running, he can never catch up with his lifelong love, Jenny (who is running down her own path in life), until the end of the film ("I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is"). Forrest's mama (Sally Field) has molded well her son's awareness and positive attitude regarding his mental challenge ("Stupid is as stupid does") such that it never is a limitation on how far and how fast he ultimately goes in life. A very touching and delightful romp through 20 years of late 20th century history in about 2 hours.

Themes to explore with younger students: Would you say Forrest was talented, lucky or both? Why did Forrest want to tell his story to strangers at the bus stop? Explain your answers.

Themes to explore with older students: Running - name several people in this film who were "running" - literally or figuratively - and tell who/what they were running from and/or towards; What is the significance of the feather? If life IS like a box of chocolates, which kind are you? Explain your answer. Compare and contrast: Forrest Gump vs. Being There - concept of "wise fool"; Forrest Gump vs. Charly - self-awareness of limitations, '60s imagery.

Heart of the Dragon


Middle School

Rated: Not Rated


85 min.

Incredible action film (does Jackie Chan make anything else?) that takes place in Hong Kong in which Chan stars as Tat Fung, a special police SWAT team member with a mentally-challenged older brother, Do-Do(Sammo Hung - of TV show "Martial Law" fame; he also choreographed the fight scenes for this movie). Do-Do and his playmates stumble onto loot from a jewel heist. Tat must battle not only against the thieves who want to retrieve the goods, but also against his own department - who question Danny's involvement in stealing the jewels - to protect his brother. Full of compassion and care as well as action. Unless you're fluent in Chinese or don't mind subtitles, get the dubbed version.

Themes to explore with younger students: Do Ted and Danny make a good team? How do the brothers help each other? Take care of each other? What would you do if you found a bag of jewels?

Themes to explore with older students: Do you think Tat resents taking care of his brother? How about Danny, does he wish Tat would leave him alone? Do you see any cultural differences in how mentally-challenged individuals are regarded?

Compare and contrast: Heart of the Dragon vs. What's Eating Gilbert Grape - compare how Tat and Gilbert feel about taking care of their mentally-challenged brothers.

Of Mice and Men


Middle School

Rated: PG-13


110 min.

"He's a nice fella. Guy don't need no sense to be a nice fella." Painted in somber tones reminiscent of early van Gogh works depicting difficult conditions of laborers, this film is a retelling of Steinbeck's classic tale of the plights and bare-bones existence of farm laborers of depression-era America. Gary Sinise, who directed the film, stars as George, the companion and self-appointed caretaker of severely mentally-challenged, but big-as-a-brute and strong-as-an-ox Lenny Small (John Malkovich). Childlike Lenny likes soft things - rabbits, puppies, his boss' lonely and flirtatious daughter-in-law's soft hair - but can't control his strength and often ends up unintentionally hurting them. A poignant look at people and creatures who "ain't no use to anyone, not even to themselves".

Themes to explore: Where do you think the title comes from? Does George resent looking after Lenny? How does he deal with his frustration? What is George and Lenny's dream? Think about the laborers' comment about Candy's dog ("aint no use to anyone, not even to himself") and explain how it can relate to people in this film (especially Candy, Curly's wife, Lenny) and their situations. Why did George act as he did in the final scene? Was it an act of compassion or desperation or what? Explain your answers.

Compare and contrast: Of Mice and Men vs. What's Eating Gilbert Grape - compare how George and Gilbert feel about taking care of their mentally-challenged charges. How are their situations alike? How are they different? If Gilbert became unable to take care of Arnie, what options are available? Did George have the same options?

What's Eating Gilbert Grape


High School

Rated: PG-13


118 min.

"Nothing ever happens here - why does it always happens to me?" A grim tale of the trials in young Gilbert Grape's (Johnny Depp) life after he becomes the head of house following his father's suicide. Gilbert is trapped beneath the weight of and consumed by his responsibilities for his family, including his extremely obese and housebound mother, 2 sisters, and a very challenging younger brother, Arnie (Leonardo di Caprio). Despite the enormity of his burden and frustrations, Gilbert meets the challenges with supreme dignity and compassion. One day, an RV rolls into town bringing insight and a ray of hope in the form of Becky (Juliette Lewis), whose refreshing presence sows the seed of his future salvation. Pay attention to Becky's recounting of the praying mantis tale. "So what do YOU want to eat, Gilbert?"

Themes to explore with younger students: Pretty heavy movie. Despite PG-13 rating, I wouldn't recommend it for younger than high school students.

Themes to explore with older students: Where do you think the title comes from? Relate the title to Becky's recounting of the praying mantis story. Does Gilbert resent taking care of his mother and Arnie? How does he deal with his frustration? Why does Arnie climb the water tower? How does Gilbert get him down? Compare and contrast: What's Eating Gilbert Grape vs. Heart of the Dragon - compare how Tat and Gilbert feel about taking care of mentally-challenged brothers.

Related links:

Movie Topics
Amnesia Autism Blindness Cognitive Impairment
Deafness Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Brain Tumors Feral Children
Neuroscience at the Movies


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