Neuroscience in Hollywood

Ever wonder what famous celebrities are like on an intellectual level, not in character on set? Ever wonder how producers and directors manage to capture the viewers’ attention so effortlessly? We see our favourite actors in film and on TV all the time, but what if you were to learn that many stars of Hollywood, including not only the actors but the studios themselves, were actively involved in neuroscience.


Hollywood: the stomping ground for rising stars and the pursuit of celebrity status; notably the biggest name in the entertainment industry. But what is beneath this outer layer of fame and fortune?

Neuroscience is of course an esoteric field of study, making us intrigued to hear about how many actors have studied or presently study neuroscience, and how studios consistently use neuroscience to provide writers with background and insight on various matters concerning topics in neuroscience that may be used as reference in a particular film or television show. Moreover, studios may connect neuroscience and psychology to incorporate film techniques and thematic devices to capture the audience’s attention.

This article presents a variety of factoids and interesting information about links between neuroscience and Hollywood.

1. A number of actors are neuroscientists. Most notably, we know her as neuroscientist Amy Fowler in the hit comedy CBS Television series The Big Bang Theory, but Mayim Bialik is a neuroscientist in real life. Bialik received her PhD in Neuroscience from UCLA in 2007. She remains rather humble about her career as a neuroscientist, but when it is brought up she has no problem speaking about it. Bialik has written a book about parenting, based on neuroendocrinology and the role of hormones in parent-child bonding. While pursuing her PhD at UCLA, her research was on hypothalamic regulation in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder among those with Prader-Willi Syndrome.


Image: Mayim Bialik, Credit:

Natalie Portman has studied neuroscience. You may know that Portman studied at Harvard University (as have many other actors and entertainment stars such as Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, B.J. Novak, Elisabeth Shue, and Conan O’Brien), but what you may not know is that she spent quite some time studying neuroscience. In fact, she even co-authored a paper in 2012, years after she had graduated, on “Object Permanence” – the role of the frontal lobes in infants’ understanding of recognizing that things still exist even though you cannot see them.

Colin Firth has  co-authored a neuroimaging paper. Though Firth is by no means a neuroscientist like Mayim Bialik, in  2011 Firth published a paper in the journal Current Biology comparing political orientation to brain structure.

2. Hollywood movies and entertainment are used in areas of brain research. 

Neuroscience research is a vast field, and many areas of investigation continually use movie clips from hit Hollywood blockbusters in various brain research studies. Not only are movies and scenes from the movies studied by neuroscientists, but the overall act of an individual watching a movie has gained immense interest among neuroscientists. In fact, there has even been a subfield of neuroscience introduced recently called “Neurocinematics,” which studies the effects that viewing film has on the brain. Read our article called “Movies Synchronize Brains” to read more on an additional type of neuroscience research that relates to film.


Photo: Brain imaging monitors affects of movies, Credit:

3. Our brains have a Jennifer Aniston Cell!?

Research in the concept of “grandmother cells” or “concept cells” led to a paper in 2005 that was published, in which researchers found on single brain cell in the hippocampus of volunteers’ brains that strongly responded to all pictures of Jennifer Aniston. There isn’t a Brad Pitt brain cell, though, because when shown a photo of Brad and Jennifer, the same neural response did not occur. This was a delightful area of research for neuroscientists.

American Cinematheque 26th Annual Award Presentation To Ben Stiller 2012 - Cocktail Reception

Photo: Jennifer Aniston, Credit:

4. Studios study neuroscience to captivate and capture the viewer’s attention. 

Neuroscience is a magnificent field of study. In neuroscience, we delve into the uncountable mysteries of our brain to try and gain an understanding of the processes that humans (and non-humans) perform. Studios, including the writers, producers, directors, etc., can read into various areas of neuroscience and psychology to learn more about humans and human behaviour to make the film experience greatly worthwhile. One apt technique used is forms of specific attention research – these include concepts such as bottom-up and top-down attentions. This is a very effective way to capture the audience’s attention and focus. It can also be used as a manipulative tool so that it is harder – or easier – for the viewer to notice something on the screen. Look into these forms of attention in the many resources available to you to learn more about the attention of yourself and others!

5. Drew Barrymore’s character in 50 First Dates was said to have a condition known as “Goldfield’s Syndrome” that is a form of amnesia. This was a fictional name for the condition in the movie, said to be made up by the writers and producers, but it is a real condition. The actual medical condition is called “Anterograde Amnesia,” a form of amnesia that renders an individual unable to form new memories after a traumatic event. Interestingly, the movie portrayed the condition quite well and quite accurately, making this film particularly relevant to neuroscientists and psychologists to study.


Photo: 50 First Dates film cover, Credit: IMDB

6. Hit 60s TV show Ben Casey starred Vince Edwards as a neurosurgeon. In 1962, approximately 33.3% of the television viewing population tuned in to watch this show. The inspiration for the lead character in the show was neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Ransohoff, who was also the lead consultant for Edwards and the directors.

7. Recurring neuroscience themes inspire Hollywood entertainment. Many brain conditions are used as plot devices in the Hollywood film industry, though they may be exaggerated or inaccurately depicted, which distorts the public’s understanding of some very important and widespread neurologic and other health issues. These conditions include coma, epilepsy, stroke, and amnesia. As mentioned, the depiction of these conditions may not be sufficiently accurate, and studios may then decide to write on these topics based on the myths and inaccuracies simply because they draw attention and provide good entertainment. But these are serious medical conditions that should not be misunderstood so meaninglessly; that is, studios should gather accurate information and facts on the topics they choose to write about, rather than writing what will be “good for ratings.” Some myths that have been used in the film industry are not as significant in terms of health and medicine, but are still significant in terms of scientific validity and accuracy. For example, many films make use of the myth that we only use 10% of our brains. Yes, in case you were adamantly convinced, you read that correctly. It is a myth. An apt example of this portrayal is the 2011 film Limitless starring Bradley Cooper, which is based upon a mistaken premise that since humans only use a fraction of our brains, if we are able to access all of our brain power, we will be, well, limitless. Other films that consist of components that are inspired by neuroscience include pictures such as Silver Linings Playbook, Head Games, The Adjustment Bureau, Free The Mind, Total Recall, Avatar, Memento, Man With The Screaming Brain, Inception, Trance, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, A Hole In One, Dopamine, A Beautiful Mind, and The Bourne Identity. There’s a few of many to keep you busy on a Friday night. Moreover, not only has neuroscience and its various areas of research inspired films, but they have also inspired entire film companies, such as ‘It’s Not Brain Surgery Productions,’ ‘Brain Farm Digital Cinema,’ and ‘Brain Damage Films.’


There are many secrets hidden behind the many facades of Hollywood and the film industry, and if we just look into it a little bit closer, we find patterns and correlations that bring us a new found interest of neurocinematics and how the use of neuroscience in films and entertainment can compel us tremendously.


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