Neuroscience at the Movies
These lessons were developed by Ms. Heather Stewart, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant

At the Movies

The visual media are powerful attention-grabbers - whether for informing, selling, entertaining or educating. Filmmakers have honed their skills to a fine art. Movies have a finger on the pulse of our society and represent a group vision that reflects the experiences and views of the writers and becomes translated through the directors and actors that interpret and present the story.

Movies can be effective teaching tools because they appeal to visual and auditory modes of learning. The story telling method, as old as humanity, is infinitely more captivating than the listing of facts and details on a given topic. Additionally, focusing on a given topic and viewing a movie enhances listening and observation skills.

Topics Selected

Topics and groups of movies are chosen because of relevance to field of neuroscience. As with other body systems, the nervous system has many time points in its development when disruption and resulting disorders may occur. Prenatal conditions affecting nervous system functioning include hereditary diseases and perinatal disorders which occur around the time of birth (e.g. cerebral palsy). After birth, childhood illnesses may affect development of nervous and sensory systems. Even the amount and type of human contact and socialization may alter the course of normal development (e.g. feral child syndrome). Later, accidents (e.g., trauma), disease (e.g. polio, rabies) and environmental influences (e.g. loudness-induced deafness) may contribute to disturbed neurological functioning. Sometimes the body turns against itself in developing autoimmune disorders with neurological consequence (e.g., multiple sclerosis).

Some disorders have obvious relevance such as specific neurological conditions relating to sensory (e.g., blindness, deafness) or motor (e.g., cerebral palsy) systems. Others formerly considered strictly psychological or emotional have more recently been found to have a biological or developmental basis within the nervous system. For example, cognitive impairment and autism may be due to aberrations of development of the nervous system; mental illnesses including depression, schizophrenia and compulsive behavior are thought to reflect disorders of within neurotransmitter systems.

Specific Movies Selected

The movies presented in these reviews were chosen not only for their relevance to the topic being described, but also to stand alone in terms of quality entertainment. Many more movies were viewed than were chosen for inclusion. Typically movies were excluded if the topic was not a significant point addressed in film such as when the disorder was a plot twist as opposed to an integral part of the film. Also, discretion was exercised in excluding films in which extreme violence or other inappropriate themes overwhelmed potential educational aspects of the film. Suggested grade levels (elementary, middle or high school) are given as the MINIMUM suggested viewing range, but are by no means intended as the maximum grade level that would benefit from viewing that film.

Information for Teachers

To get the most out of these films, as always, preparation is key and depends on the approach to the material. If these topics are studied as "stand-alone" topics (e.g., for National Blindness Awareness Month) or diversity awareness activities (e.g., cognitive impairment), then preparation may be limited to previewing the film(s) while making notes on the teacher preview sheet and providing students with a partially completed student viewing worksheet. If the topic is related to specific study of the nervous system, an additional nervous system information sheet and lesson is recommended to study the topic.

It is ALWAYS recommended that you preview the film prior to including it as part of a lesson (even if you have viewed it before) so that you may:

  • check for appropriateness of content to your course, maturity level of students, objectionable material (mark these on your teacher preview sheet).
  • use the film at an appropriate point for class length, topic of interest (viewing a specific behavior or symptom pattern), after specific scenes for discussion (mark these on your teacher preview sheet).
  • gain a fuller understanding of topic. It is recommended that you view at least 2 of the suggested movies. This can be accomplished by dividing students into groups, having each group view a different film, then having a class discussion to compare and contrast. Alternately, you can view selected parts of two or more films in available class time, or if class time permits, set aside enough time to view 2 or more films.

The teacher preview sheet will help you divide the films at appropriate times to fit in with your schedule. Having students fill in the Student Viewing Worksheet with some pre-printed info (name/yr/type/actors/condition being studied) will help focus student attention on the topic. While viewing the films, students can fill in characters, setting, plot, favorite lines. If a film is assigned as an outside assignment, it is recommended that you provide student with a viewing sheet as discussed above to help focus on specific issues and important aspects of the film.

Information for Students

If you are picking a topic for class, you may want to print a copy of the student viewing worksheet to to help organize information for viewing. (Your teacher may already provide one for you.) After you select a topic, read the introduction at the top of the page and make sure you understand the basics. If not, check with your teacher or check the links at the bottom of the page for further information. Also, if this is for a class assignment, make sure that you have cleared the topic and film(s) with your teacher.

Movie Topics

Amnesia Autism Blindness
Deafness Cognitive Impairment Feral Children
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Brain Tumors Coma

Find the movies in this on-line WORDSEARCH puzzle.

Also, see Psychiatry in Cinema, Movies for Psychology Students and And The Winner Is: Inviting Hollywood into the Neuroscience Classroom.

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