Neuroscience at the Movies

Feral Children

This lesson was developed by Ms. Heather Stewart, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant
"...And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things."
--- Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

"Feral" means wild or existing in a natural state. Feral children are those who have been abandoned or lost in the wilderness and have spent a significant amount of their formative years there. These child have lived without any direct human contact and often with the aid of wild animals who have adopted them into their groups. Though there are many legends of feral children, only a few cases have been documented and verified (see links below). Over the centuries, stories of feral children have intrigued many people - especially scientists and educators - for possible clues as to the effect of socialization on language and communication skills, learned aspects of human behavior and development and the true nature of humans. Studies of feral children have led to new methods for teaching children with learning disabilities, and indirectly to the development of Braille and sign language.

Feral children are NOT the same as autistic children - both of these conditions are due to aberrations of the normal biological developmental process. Children with these conditions are usually fully socialized to the limits of their capabilities. On the other hand, feral children may exhibit the usual range of biological developmental potential, but fail to develop normal human communication skills as a result of growing up in social isolation without proper models. Such skills are dependent upon continuous hearing, observation, mimicking and reinforcement to develop properly. Therefore, it is not surprising that feral children do not acquire these skills and rather that they may acquire those of their adoptive animal families during these critical socialization years (see stories in links about children raised with dogs, apes, wolves). This is due to the inherent plasticity of the nervous system in which, though many aspects of our sensory and motor systems are "hard-wired," others (such as language and communication) are more dependent on postnatal experience and the specific environment that infants are born into to finish development and acquire the specific skills and behaviors necessary to survive and compete in that environment. Depending on the age at which they are removed from human contact and the age at which they are retrieved, feral children may not ever be able to develop normal communication patterns because of the window in early childhood when the nervous system is primed for acquiring language and communication skills.

The films selected here all depict children who have been socially isolated from an early age. They make a fair attempt at the shock and revulsion with which these socially isolated individuals regard their "rescuers" and attempts to be incorporated into an unfamiliar culture. Where the fictional films (The Jungle Book and Greystoke) miss the mark is that by all accounts, individuals rescued from such circumstances are never able to acquire the facility with language, social customs or even human understanding that their characters show (Mowgli in Jungle Book, Tarzan in Greystoke). Though virtually socially isolate, Nell's (Nell) limited and distorted acquisition of these skills may be due to shared isolation with her mother, whose stroke-induced speech order and extreme fear of outside contact shaped Nell's linguistic and social development. The Wild Child is based on a true story and has a more believable outcome (i.e., extremely limited acquisition of language, communication and behavioral skills even after extensive instruction. Where the fictional accounts seem to outshine the nonfictional ONE, is in allowing the main characters their freedom in deciding where to live their lives - in the edenic wild settings in which they were accepted and grew up or in the complex, unaccepting, unforgiving often crueller and more barbarous culture into which they are thrust. Perhaps not surprising, they all chose to stay in Eden.

Themes that merit exploration in these films include those of human vs. animal attributes, wild and natural vs. manmade and unnatural, civilized vs. barbaric, noble vs. barbaric. Look at how contradictory concepts are merged, such as nobility, interspecies acceptance among wild animals and barbarity, nonacceptance of their own kind among certain humans.

Questions to consider while viewing these films:

  • At what age were the feral children separated from human contact?
  • During their social isolation, who (or what) did these children spend their formative years with? Did they develop "normal" human behaviors and language? If not, what or whom did they pattern their language and behavior after?
  • How were these characters reintroduced to human contact? Were they happy to be rescued? Was this an easy transition for them? Did they ever fit in totally? Did they ever wish to be back in their previous wild setting?
  • What did they gain from human contact? What did they lose? Did THEY feel they were better off for regaining human contact? Do YOU feel they were better off? Explain your answers.
  • Does "wild" equate with "barbaric"? How about "civilized" with "noble"? Who were the barbaric characters and which side(s) (wild or civilized) were they on? Who were the noble characters and which side(s) were they on?
  • What does it mean to be human? Do you consider the feral characters to be human? Did other characters in the films question their human-ness? Explain your answers.

Jungle Book


Elementary School

Rated: G


108 min.

A toddler wanders into the Indian rain forest and into a den where he is adopted into a wolf pack family. For 12 years, Mowgli (Sabu) lives as part of the wolfpack before his path crosses that of humans again. He goes back and forth between the village and jungle before finally renouncing the depravity of human nature and returns to his jungle home for good, but not before saving the people from themselves and breaking the heart of a village girl. Sabu exhibits believable wolf behavior - he snaps, growls, sniffs, howls, etc. There are a few corny scenes such as the "wiry" treasure-guarding cobra, the very fake tiger he wrestles in the riever, and you can't help but wonder where he learned the Australian crawl. However, these scences are forgiveable. The Disney versions of the story sacrific realism to entertainment and though they are entertaining, they are not as believable.
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes


Elementary School

Rated: PG


137 min.

Tarzan/John Clayton (Christopher Lambert of later Highlander fame) has been born to a pair of marooned English nobles in a distant jungle. Upon their deaths, their infant is adopted and raised by a mother ape, whose own child has just died, and her group. Years later, Tarzan rescues the Belgian naturalist accompanying an ill-fated hunting party who returns the favor by reuniting him with his aristocratic roots in Scotland. While there, cousin Jane Porter (Andie Macdowell) undertakes his socialization, and succeeds remarkably well - he dances, wears a tux like he was born to it and speaks 2 languages ("Il mon pere!") in less than an hour. Still he manages to break her heart and return to his jungle home where he's not only an earl but a lord.

The first hour of this film includes wonderful, quite believable footage of Tarzan's early life in the jungle and interactions with his primate family. Back in Scotland and England, Lambert does a reasonable job of keeping a touch of the animal always in view, but though it may be true to its source, it's difficult to accept such a rapid and complete transformation in light of what is known about the outcomes of feral children.

Author Edgar Rice Burroughs never lived in the tropics or even visited them as far as we know, but he may have read of a current report of the discovery of a feral child or even borrowed from Kipling in writing his "Tarzan of the Apes" nearly 2 decades later.

The Wild Child
(L'Enfant Sauvage)


High School

Rated: Not rated


83 min.

Based on a true story of Dr. Jean Itard's (Francois Truffaut) attempts to socially reintegrate a boy, "Victor" (Jean-Pierre Cargol) who has been living and scavenging along in a French forest for most of his young life. He is captured and brought to Paris as an oddity where he garners the symptahy and scientific interest of Dr. Itard. Itard enlists his housekeeper to help him teach and socialize the boy. Though infinitely patient and well-intentioned, they meet with limited, though often surprising results. This is an excellent example of scientific method in action as Truffaut narratively questions and hypothesizes what and how Victor understands, then develops new teaching tasks to test his hypotheses. Without reading Dr. Itard's originial material, it is not clear if some of Victor's behaviors, such as rocking, tantrums, etc., were atually noted or were improvised. Some people have speculated (whether through Itard's note or by watching the film) that Victor may have been autistic. If Victor was autistic, it may have been the reason why he was abandoned in the forest to begin with.


High School

Rated: PG-13


118 min.

"Is this for real - no phone, no electricity, no running water?" Nell (Jodie Foster) has been raised in isolation beside a tranquil lake, in a primitive cabin deep in the wood of North Carolina by her hermit-like mother. Nell's mother has been severely disabled physically and linguistically by a stroke. The rural M.D., Dr. Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson) is called in after the mother's death and discovers Nell with her strange, wild ways and incomprehenible language. Then, a well-meaning psychology alerts the state to Nell's situation and Dr. Lovell has three months to learn her language and show that she is competent and capable of caring for herself to prevent her from being committed to an institution. Whe the outside world finally intrudes, the only wasy to protect Nell is to betray her by ripping her away from her paradise and giving her a first-hand crash course on what life outside is all about. Once she recovers from her shock and catatonia, Nell shows she understands more than they can imagine. Jody Foster provides a fantastic performance.

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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