Committed to a scientific experiment of a mysterious purpose and subjected to strange free-association psychological tests, four strangers are haunted as they slowly rediscover their heinous pasts. Horrific memories return to each of the unsuspecting volunteers as they lie in electrical impulse-sending devices that look shockingly and threateningly like reclining lawn chairs. The climax of the film sees the hapless research subjects surrounded by walls caked with horrid wallpaper that are slowly and assuredly closing in as a group of military personal hijack a scientist's experiment with a new top-secret machine that extracts the 'truth' from peoples' brains. The four strangers, having had their terrible pasts unveiled, kill themselves and each other as the military ruthlessly continues to probe their brains, ignoring the merciful pleas of the unsuspecting and benevolent scientist.
Despite the TV-style acting, the overuse of strange and apparently meaningless establishing shots, and the fact that the boom mic makes a special guest appearance in a number of scenes, The Brain Machine (Burnham, 1977) has a lot to offer. Somewhere under the inexplicable dialogue, the confusing cuts between seemingly unrelated scenes, and the fact that, as a viewer, we really have no idea what the original purpose of the experiment was, there is a gem of an idea here that is surprisingly precocious.
What if you could tell the truth by the activity of a person's brain? This idea has broken out of the realm of science fiction in recent years; ‘brain reading’ experiments have been underway for some time. Some scientists have used advancements in electroencephalography (EEG) to probe whether individuals possess guilty knowledge (e.g. can you tell whether a defendant has seen a murder weapon before by measuring EEG?; e.g. see Farwell & Donchin, 1991). Functional magnetic resonance imaging has also been used for ‘mind reading’. By showing people a number of images of objects and measuring brain activity throughout, the patterns of activity observed have then been used to predict which object a person is thinking of when none is present on the screen (see Kay et al., 2008). Though some scientists are claiming these tests are highly accurate, the peer-reviewing academic jury is still out. Regardless, with this type of truth-from-brainwave research currently underway, we are left wondering whether The Brain Machine stands as a prophecy warning us of a government's resolve to control its citizens by forcing the truth, or simply a B-rated sci-fi flick that gives us the opportunity to watch the Dukes of Hazard's Rosco Purvis Coltrane (i.e. James Best) in a starring role. Either way, even though you might want to keep it a secret, we recommend grabbing a comfortable, electricity-free lawn-chair, sitting back , and allowing The Brain Machine to challenge you to discover the truth -- about its value!
Check out The Brain Machine (1977) at:
Learn more about 'mind reading' at:
Burnham, SC. (Producers),Houck Jr., JN. (Director). (1977). The Brain Machine [Motion picture]. USA: Howco Productions Inc..
Farwell, LA., & Donchin, E. (1991). The truth will out: Interrogative polygraphy (“Lie Detection”) with even-related brain potentials. Psychophysiology, 28, 5, 531-547.
Kay, K.N., Naselaris, T., Prenger, R.J., & Gallant, J.L. (2008). Identifying natural images from human brain activity. Nature, 452, 352-355.