Shrooms (2007)

If you are a God-loving American catholic schoolgirl, it must be that nothing seems better than heading into an Irish forest with a group of friends to ingest some highly potent hallucinogenic mushrooms. Or at least, that’s one of those ideas that seem good until you start having seizures, visions, premonitions, and your friends keep wandering off and getting their limbs mangled while you keep waking up disoriented and covered in blood. But of course, that won’t happen to you, right? That’s what all the kids say.

The infamous psychologist Timothy Leary celebrated hallucinogens. For him ‘magic mushrooms’ were a natural supplement to any investigation into the self.  (For those interested, you can check out his ‘classic’ literature here, and don’t forget the hard-to-find but worth-while album here).  Though Timothy Leary’s Tune in, Turn on, Drop out crusade was highly criticized (and he eventually left Harvard to pontificate elsewhere), psychological and neuroscientific research has seen a recent surge of interest in those little mescal buttons.

Research into the effects of psilocybin is providing insight into how this drug affects the brain, producing its characteristic hallucinations and other-worldly perceptions. For instance, a well-publicized recent research article reports in detail the changes in brain activation while ‘under the influence’ of hallucinogens. In this study, the researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to observe the brain while participants were—ahem-- ‘tripping’.  The participants were not given a specific task, instructed instead to simply ‘relax’. The results showed that, rather than sporadically exciting a diversity of brain areas (as the subjective experience of a drug trip might suggest), or throwing subjects into violent black-out states (as silly slasher films like to imply), the drug actually reduced activity in the hubs that coordinate activity across important brain regions—regions that other research has implicated in maintaining consciousness and creating feelings of the self.

Because of the ability of this drug to deactivate these ‘hub’ centers, the authors suggest that mushrooms may be useful in helping people with depression overcome their rigid, negative thoughts by loosening the maladaptive connections that the hubs maintain. Whether or not this is the case remains to be determined, but it is certainly clear that we will hear lots more about the neuroscience of drug trips in the near future—though we doubt that they’ll explain why some catholic schoolgirls tend to walk around strange Irish forests with hatchets. 

More on Shrooms (2007) here

Carhart-Harris, R.L., Erritzoe, D., Williams, T., Stone, J.M., Reed, L.J., Colasanti, A., Tyacke, R.J., Leech, R., Malizia, A.L., Murphy, K., Hobden, P., Evans, J., Feilding, A., Wise, R.G., & Nutt, D.J. (2012). Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(6), 2138-2143.

MacDonald, P. & Walpole, R. (Producers), Breathnach, P. (Director). (2007). Shrooms [Motion picture]. Ireland: Vertigo Films(UK). 


Patrick (1978)

The eponymous character of the film Patrick (1978) sure is in a tough spot-- until he decides to kill his mother and her lover by electrocuting them in the bathtub! But this doesn't solve much, as he soon finds himself deep in a coma without a chance of recovery, kept alive only by the most advanced technology and by the grand scientific aspirations-- or sadistic machinations-- of a doctor interested in the moment living things stop living. With no hope of recovery, many of us might abhor the idea of living as a vegetable for three years, probed and prodded endlessly for science; but then again, most of us will not develop telekinetic powers with which to torment our science-minded overlords, tossing them from windows or drowning them in their own pools!

In 1978, diagnosing a vegetative state was difficult in the best of cases, and it continues to challenge doctors today. Interestingly, recent advancements in neuroscience are revealing that people might posses more awareness than was historically thought. Misapplication of a ‘vegetative state’ diagnosis can be serious, and may potentially result in the treatment of coma patients as vegetative when they are actually capable of some degree of perception or awareness, including understanding speech. 

Researchers have recorded electrical changes in coma patients' brains and while giving them commands to imagine motor movements of their right-hand or toes. Surprisingly, in some of the patients tested (19%), the electroencephalogram (i.e., the measurements of brain activity) showed that these patients were indeed imagining the motor movements, and they were responding to verbal commands in ways similar to neurologically healthy control participants. Importantly, by looking at the brain’s response to different commands, the researchers were able to determine that some vegetative patients are aware, retaining some aspects of normal cognitive functioning. Does this change the way we think about comas? Certainly. Alas, however, the development of telekinetic powers has not been detected in coma patients (or in patients that are completely aware for that matter – but see our post on “Red Mist” for a fun fake neuroscientific explanation of telekinesis!). 

More on Patrick (1978)

More on awareness in vegetative state


Cruse, D., Chennu, S., et al. (2011). Bedside detection of awareness in the vegetative state: a cohort study. The Lancet, 378(9809), 2088-2094.

Franklin, R. & Ginnane, A. (Producers), Franklin, R.  (Director). (1978). Patrick [Motion picture]. Australia: Filmways Australasian. 


Faces in the Crowd (2011)

Milla Jovovich takes a break from blasting off zombie heads in the popular Resident Evil series to take on the roll of victim and hero Anna Marchant in the recently released Faces in the Crowd (2011). A horror-thriller we simply had to see, Faces in the Crowd adopts as its premise a very uncommon yet well studied neuropsychological phenomena- -that of face blindness or ‘Prosopagnosia’. In the film, Anna Marchant’s simple life is suddenly shaken when she unwittingly stumbles across an elusive serial murderer engaged in a diabolical deed. Facing (heh) the infamous killer, she attempts to flee but falls off a bridge, hitting her head on the way down. She survives the fall and emerges from the hospital as the only living person to have seen the killer. Naturally, she becomes a valuable resource to the authorities investigating the serial killer’s case. The problem, however, is that she can no longer recognize faces! Such a curious deficit allows the writers of Faces in the Crowd (2011) to introduce all sorts of high adrenaline hjinks in which Anna is hunted by an assailant she has seen but can no longer recognize.

Prosopagnosia is a neuropsychological impairment that results from damage to the temporal lobe of the brain—a region that appears to be specialized for processing objects and faces. Commonly, patients with prosopagnosia can see just fine—there is no problem with vision. In fact, they can continue to recognize objects by sight, and often don’t have a problem recognizing people by their voices or bodily movements. This bizarre condition seems to be specific the visual recognition of people’s faces. Indeed, they can tell the thing they are looking at is a face but can’t tell whose face it is.  It is as though they are unable to put all the parts—the eyes, the nose, the mouth—together in a unified, integrated perception. Some patients have even reported the curious inability to recognize themselves in a mirror! For most of us, this phenomenon is particularly difficult to imagine and we’re not sure how useful Faces in the Crowd is at providing first-person insight into this bizarre deficit (example here); unlike Anna Marchant’s problem, for instance, prosopagosics are not challenged with an ever changing stream of actors. Despite this, Faces in the Crowd does encourage us to reflect on the remarkable ability of the brain to distinguish and recognize people by their faces, a skill that seems to rely on specialized neural circuits and one that is so effortless we take for granted. As the psychiatrist in the film emphasizes, “faces are the barcode of the human race”, and this is something that deficits like prosopagnosia reveal in staggering detail. 

For more on the science of prosopagnosia, see here

For more on Faces in the Crowd (2011) see here

DeWalt, K et al. (Producers), Magnat, J. (Director). (2011).Faces in the Crowd [Motion picture]. United States: Forecast Pictures