Neuroscience at the Movies


This lesson was developed by Ms. Heather Stewart, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant
The mind is for seeing, the heart is for hearing.
--- Arabian Proverb

As with blindness, deafness can have numerous causes. Trauma to the head or auditory apparatus at any point along the pathway from the auditory receptors to the auditory cortex can result in hearing impairment or loss. Non-traumatic causes include hereditary and non-hereditary disorders affecting prenatal development of the auditory system. Postnatally, hearing impairment can be caused by environmental factors such as exposure to excessively loud noises (e.g., loud machinery, music, weaponry). Speech and language development, which are dependent on accurate hearing, may be affected in individuals with untreated hearing impairment in early childhood. Noise-induced hearing loss generally occurs AFTER language development so that speech may be unaffected. Depending on the cause and degree of impairment, treatment may include hearing aids to amplify sound waves or a cochlear implant. Speech and language therapy may include learning to communicate with sign language.

Some individuals with hearing impairments compensate for the loss of hearing by becoming more sensitive to other sensory information such as visual and tactile stimuli. This is a feature that is frequently incorporated into films. In some ways, hearing loss appears to be be more isolating than loss of vision. With reduced visual input, an individual is still continuously aware of the external world as long as he or she is conscious, whereas with reduction or absence of auditory stimuli, the external world can be more readily excluded by focusing on a task or even closing one's eyes. It becomes easier literally - as well as figuratively - to dance to the beat of one's own inner drummer (dance scene in Children of a Lesser God). The theme of alienation - whether self-imposed or through the actions of others - is evident in all films of this group.

Water imagery appears as a significant feature in several films from this group, including When the Whales Came and Children of a Lesser God, perhaps because as a medium, water renders familiar auditory stimuli irrelevant and thus levels the playing field, as it were, between hearing and non-hearing individuals. In such an environment, non-hearing individuals have an advantage due to increased sensitivity of other senses. In another sense, "water" also plays the liberating element of The Miracle Worker, as when Helen finally makes the connection between the object "water" and the sign for "water" with her teacher at the pump.

Finally, we must also consider that "hearing" is often used as a metaphor for "listening." Therefore, in films featuring a character who is non-hearing, look for signs of who else is not "hearing" or listening to what is being said or meant. Thus paradoxically, speech and sound take on an even greater importance in the films. Likewise, look for enhanced visual and textual quality to reflect enhanced visual and tactile sensation in those characters with hearing impairments.

Each of the films depicts a different role for the deaf characters - as mentor (When the Whales Came and The Miracle Worker), student (The Miracle Worker), son (Mr. Holland's Opus), maestro (Immortal Beloved) and leading lady/romantic interest (Children of a Lesser God). Enhance your understanding by considering and discussing the following questions after viewing these films:

  • Do you think this was a realistic portrayal of deafness? Why or why not?
  • How was the character's impairment a challenge? A benefit? Did the character exhibit enhancement of other senses such as vision or touch? Give examples.
  • In what ways was the non-hearing character alienated from other characters in the film? Was this self-imposed or imposed by others?
  • How was the playing field levelled? In other words, in what situation would the deaf character be at an advantage and other characters be deaf?
  • In what ways were other characters in the film "not hearing" or "not listening?"
  • If you became deaf, what kinds of changes would you make in your life?
  • If you watch two or more of these films, compare and contrast how the deaf characters met their unique challenges. Also, did they perceive their deafness in similar or different ways?

When the Whales Came


Elementary School

Rated: PG


100 min.

A beautifully filmed movie that takes place on an island off the coast of England just before World War I. Two island children secretly befriend a deaf hermit and together they save their island from a curse that has befallen a neighboring island some 70 years before. Wonderful lessons of friendship, family, community, duty.
Mr. Holland's Opus


Middle School

Rated: PG


143 min.

In this film, the deaf character, Coltrane, plays a supporting role as the son of music teacher Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfus), whose original dream was to compose great music played by major orchestras in important places. Slowly, his life turns away from his dream: unexpected parenthood compels him to take a job teaching high school marching band to unenthusiastic students; the son he wants to share his passion for music with is born deaf. But in molding his vision to circumstance, he achieves a symphony much grander than the sum of its individual parts, including a way to share his music with his son. Favorite lines: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm Coach Meister, your marching buddy," and "We are your notes. We are your opus."
The Miracle Worker


Elementary School

Rated: G


106 min.

On a more serious note, The Miracle Worker with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft is a powerful portrayal of the true story of fiery and dedicated Irish teacher Anne Sullivan and her reluctant pupil, seven-year-old blind, deaf and mute Helen Keller. Through a tremendous, but ultimately triumphant clash of wills, Anne's determination forces Helen to confront and order her world. Extremely compelling story, masterfully done. Students of all ages will be drawn in. Both actresses won well-deserved Oscars for their performances. There is a more recent remake of this film, but the first version is the gold standard.
Immortal Beloved


High School

Rated: R


121 min.

Upon his death, Ludwig von Beethoven leaves his estate to his "immortal beloved." The search is on, then, to discover the identity of the woman who inspired him. The film is based on the life of the great composer, who, despite being deaf and unable to hear his own compositions played, created many of the world's most exquisite music pieces. Music is the language through which many of the events are described. The image of a child floating in a star-filled lake to "Ode to Joy" epitomizes rapture. One of the biggest tragedies of this film is its rating, as I think much younger students (definitely middle school students, possibly some elementary school students) should and would be able to appreciate this film. Memorable quote: "It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice - it is like hypnotism." Standout performances by Gary Oldham as Beethoven and Isabella Rossellini as a former love.
Children of a Lesser God


High School

Rated: R


110 min.

Unfortunately this film is rated R, as I think younger audiences (middle school) would find much to appreciate and enjoy about it. The signing in this film is a visual treat. An invaluable peek not just at how people who are deaf go about everyday life, but into the culture of the deaf and why some shun hearing even if given the opportunity to hear. Full of fun (Ba-boom-a-rang-rang-rang) and chemistry (between the hearing teacher (William Hurt) and tough, deaf janitor played by Marlee Matlin). Ms. Matlin garnered an Academy Award for her performance in this film.

Try the American Sign Language Movie Puzzle

Related links:

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


BACK TO: Exploring the Nervous System Table of Contents

Send E-mail

Get Newsletter

Search Pages