I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Guest blogger (and non-scientist) Jack Sharp reviews I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

N.B. there’s no mention of science in this review, but c’mon, it’s Christmas!


When it came to picking a Christmas film to review, the typical festive favourites sprung to mind. Among these films was the warmly remembered Tim Allen vehicle The Santa Clause. The film’s plot: a cantankerous businessman accidentally kills Santa and puts on the dead man’s pants, thereby fulfilling a contractual agreement that requires him to take over Santa’s duties. Admittedly, it’s a little grim for a kid’s movie, but a lot of fun nonetheless.

As an adult, however, the film seems a little different to how I remember it. It’s a surprisingly dark, psychologically charged tale of two divorced parents, one of which (Tim Allen) suffers a variety of hormonal imbalances, ends up gaining 100 pounds and believes himself to be the real Santa Claus. Eventually, he ends up losing custody of his whiny son Charlie, and ceases to have a normal life ever again.

The final scene of the film consists of Charlie’s mother begging her ex-husband not to fly his sleigh over any oceans when traveling with his son on board. And yet, in an act of defiance and sheer madness, Tim Allen is seen flying quickly towards the sea moments before the movie fades to black. Whether Allen and Charlie survive is anyone’s guess.

Needless to say, I needed cheering up after watching The Santa Clause, so I turned my attention to the lesser known I’ll Be Home for Christmas, a late-1990s movie that stars Allen’s Home Improvement co-star Jonathan Taylor Thomas and a young Jessica Biel. My interest in the film was based entirely on the smiley DVD cover, which sees Thomas leaning up against a particularly prickly cactus, seemingly unconcerned by the many spikes that appear to be penetrating his skin.

Thomas stars as Jake, a grotesquely arrogant, spoiled college kid, whose smugness can scarcely be contained by his own skin. “What’s that, Jake?” he regularly says to his pouting, naked reflection, “You want me to kiss you?” But now even Jake is starting to think that his self-admiration is starting to get a little too much. He has a girlfriend named Allie (Jessica Biel) and a family who he rarely sees, even at Christmas. This year, Jake’s father hopes things will be different. In a tremendous act of parenting, he makes him a deal: if Jake comes home in time for Christmas, he gets to drive the family Porsche.

I know from personal experience how much fun driving around the suburban town in which you were raised can be, running in to people you vehemently despised back in school at the local petrol station, and scratching your head at how they’ve somehow managed to forget how awful they used to be. And to do all that in a gratuitously flashy car? No wonder Jake gleefully agrees to his dad’s bribery. There’s just one problem: Jake’s a massive dick.

Amazingly, it’s revealed that he hasn’t been home since his mother died two years ago. And because of this, it’s a little difficult to sympathise with his character, even after he’s beaten up by some jocks and ditched in the middle of nowhere. The person responsible for this senseless, surprisingly brutal attack is an avaricious bro named Eddie, who dreams of making Allie his own.

While Jake regains consciousness, and discovers that his hat and beard have been glued to his skin, Eddie offers Allie a ride back home. Believing that Jake has stood her up, she begrudgingly accepts, even though Eddie’s presence makes her skin crawl. It’s hard to see why Allie’s so disgusted by Eddie considering he shares many characteristics with her boyfriend. In fact, in many ways, Eddie is less arrogant than Jake. Granted, he’s not a nice character, but he certainly doesn’t appear to be the sort of person who’d only return home to see his mourning father when promised a Porsche.

In real life, these two situations—Eddie and Allie traveling home together and Jake left stranded in a desert—would turn out very differently than they do in the film. Jake’s story would ultimately end with him dying of dehydration in the desert, shortly after attempting to avoid starvation by eating his polyester Santa beard. And Eddie and Allie’s story would climax in immediately regrettable sex in a layby, as Eddie yells, “Oh, yeah, baby! I call this one ‘Eddie Style’!”

What actually happens isn’t much more upbeat. Jake ends up lying his way across the country and telling people various made-up stories to emotionally manipulate them into giving him a ride. Meanwhile, Allie continues to despise Eddie, despite an awkward moment in which they’re forced to share a German-themed hotel room together. Jake picks this moment to catch up with Allie and naturally presumes that she and Eddie are together. But I know what you really want to know. You want to know if Jake gets to take “Ol’ Red” for a spin, right? I mean, that’s what Christmas is all about, right?

Well, I don’t want to spoil this wonderful moment in the film. I want you to watch this first hand. You need to watch this big emotional payoff and feel the tears descend down your cheeks. I will say one thing, though: Ricky doesn’t really learn any lessons during his arduous trek home. This really is just a film about a bratty kid who wants to drive his dad’s Porsche really, really bad. And isn’t that the real meaning of Christmas?

Jack Sharp is the self-proclaimed neurotic geek behind blog no soap radio polka. He also happens to be my (Gemma) biological brother… so that’s the science bit.

The Fog

Joe Bathelt reviews The Fog and talks about the science of horror films… Just in time for Halloween (mwahahahaha!).

Yes, I admit it. After hours of hard intellectual work of dwelling through impenetrable scientific journal articles and exhausting data analysis, I occasionally kick back in front of the TV and pop in a DVD. At this time of the year, one obvious temptation for the tired office worker, who craves a bit of excitement, are horror movies. In my case, I ended up watching the film The Fog starring actors you most likely haven’t heard of. I don’t even know what seemed appealing to me about this particular movie and to be honest, I think the writers of the movie script got a bit too much of the fog in their head. Nonetheless, it made me wonder what the common topic in cheap horror films is and why these motifs make us sit at the edge of the couch with our fingers clasping a pillow in fear. So, be prepared for some Halloween-themed neuroscience (*manic laughter here*).

First of all, some details about the film so that you get the picture of what kind of fear-provoking nonsense I’m talking about. The film is set on a little island somewhere on the coast of the US. The landscape is stunning, the sea blue and the people look like they escaped an underwear hoarding. The horror starts when the protagonist stirs some resting spirits on the bottom of the sea in some remote place with the anchor of the fishing boat that he inherited from his late father. This leads to a curse that manifests itself as a bank of fog that covers the island and subsequently kills most of the cast. In case you are wondering, yes, the fog kills people. In one particularly stupid scene, the fog even kills someone by throwing a knife at them.

I think there is some similarity between this film and other ‘teenage horror movies’. It seems it doesn’t really matter who does the killing. It could be low altitude meteorological phenomena, various household appliances (Final Destination), teachers possessed by aliens (Faculty), vicious plants (The Happening), or static on the TV (White Noise). However stupid the plot is, these movies seem to scare a sufficient number of people. It doesn’t look like these things are frightening by themselves. At least I’m not massively concerned when I enter the shower, but in The Fog, a sense of foreboding accelerates my heart beat as soon as a protagonist enters this steamy death trap.

The Amygdala

From a neuroscience perspective, I think there are at least two reasons why these stupid films still manage to scare us despite their apparent stupidity. The first reason lies in a little almond-shaped area called the amygdala. You might be able to find your the amygdala, if you drill from underneath the ear towards the midline of the brain. If you can’t find it on the first try, don’t worry – there is one on each side. The amygdala has a central role in emotion processing, particularly to fear-related stimuli. The amazing feature of processing in the amygdala is that it is faster than most other kinds of visual processing. A study by Patrik Vuilleumier and colleagues from the University of Geneva in 2003 demonstrated that the amygdala will show an increased BOLD signal in response to fearful faces when normal pictures were presented or when just the contours of the face are presented. This allows rapid extraction of fear-related information before the fine-grained processing can take place. This in turn allows for faster responses. The amygdala pathway seems to provide a fast bridge between visual information and motor responses. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense: When a sabre-toothed cat jumps at you from the bushes, you wouldn’t survive if you just stood there and enjoyed the marvellous view of the drool dripping from its massive canines. It is also the reason why Hollywood filmmakers can sell us horror movies with stupid plot lines. We will get afraid if there is something barely visible and vaguely fear-related. This is a central theme in all these movies: there is always a killer/monster/meteorological anomaly in the dark corner. If we saw Freddy Krueger in broad daylight, we wouldn’t be as afraid. If there is enough visual input and some longer processing time, higher cortical areas would jump in. We would have access to memories and could use cognitive strategies to guide our behaviour.

Another important aspect in my view is how you are able to empathise with someone and experience the fear, even though you are ‘just watching’ a movie. There has been a concept in philosophy for many centuries that we understand the actions of others by simulating what they are doing in our own head. We are mapping what it would feel like for us, if we were in the same situation as someone we are observing. This idea was revived when a group headed by Giacamo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in Italy discovered that there are neurons that seem to do exactly that job. They recorded the activity of nerve cells in rhesus macaques and discovered that neurons in the somatosensory (body-sensing) cortex respond when a monkey is grasping something, but surprisingly also when the monkey is just observing the action. The somatosensory cortex is the part of the brain, where sensations from the peripheral nerves end up. It is the part that is usually represented with a funny little brain man that shows how much area is dedicated to each body part in the somatosensory cortex. It was proposed that these neurons are part of a more extensive “mirror neuron system” that allows us to simulate observed actions. A study by Shmuelof and Zohary from 2005 shows that the same is likely to be true for humans. In the study, they show that parts of the somatosensory cortex increase in fMRI activity when a participant observes a hand grasping an object, but not when just the object is observed. So, in the context of Halloween movies, part of the reason why your heart begins to race when you see the helpless victim being chased in the dark is that you stimulate the experience in your head.

I hope you enjoy your amygdalae and mirror neuron system excitation this Halloween season! And stay away from The Fog!

Joe Bathelt is a neuroscientist currently working on his PhD at the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at the Institute of Child Health, University College London. He graduated in Biology from the University of Tübingen, South Germany, and also holds a Master’s degree in Neuroscience from UCL. His interests are in the neuroscience of human social interactions, emotions and philosophy of mind. He’s on Facebook here.

Limitless

Matt Wall reviews the recent action thriller Limitless.

Limitless starring Bradley Cooper is a decent-enough thriller about a slovenly deadbeat writer whose life is transformed by an encounter with his drug-dealer brother-in-law and a small clear pill. On taking a dose of the mysterious substance he writes a masterpiece of a novel in a single day, learns new languages effortlessly, has perfect recall, heightened perception, and for some unaccountable reason starts dressing like a Cuban pimp. Of course, it’s not long before trouble arrives in the form of the rightful owners of the stolen bag of pills, as well as some mysteriously non-specific (but potentially fatal) physical side effects of the enhancing substance.

Limitless is not a bad little thriller, and includes a few nice touches, particularly some unusual SFX shots zooming through New York City which try to convey the heightened awareness brought on by the drug. Bradley Copper is much more believable as the post-pill mental superman than the deadbeat character we’re first introduced to; the make-up department obviously did their best to make him look unattractive (straggly hair, five-day stubble, a smoking habit!) but it’s just impossible for him to be anything other than a laser-blue-eyed, square-jawed Adonis. Robert De Niro also turns up to do the kind of gruff, phoned-in turn that is all he seems to do these days.

Of more interest than the reasonably by-the-numbers execution of this film though, is the central premise. What if a pill could help you be more perceptive, work harder with greater concentration, and just generally be smarter? It’s an intriguing question; there are times in all our lives when we might wish for a little extra help in this area. Of course, the kind of massive enhancement in mental capacity portrayed in the film is (at the moment) pure fantasy, but when deadlines are due, there’s a big job interview coming up, or you have a presentation at a conference the day after doing a 12-hour flight to get there, wouldn’t it be great if there were something we could take that would give us a little extra boost? Something stronger and more effective than just plain ol’ caffeine, of course.

Well, it turns out there is. And people are already taking these substances – a lot of people. The two biggest drugs that people are currently taking for these purposes are Ritalin (or Methylphenidate) and Modafinil. These so-called nootropics or ‘smart drugs’ are being used and abused by a very large number of people across a wide cross-section of society.

Ritalin is the drug-treatment of choice for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the under-18s. It is essentially a stimulant, chemically similar to amphetamines (‘speed’), and acts primarily on the brain’s dopamine system. However it has a somewhat paradoxical effect in small doses, acting to calm patients down, improve concentration and alleviate some of the other behavioural problems associated with ADHD. Precise current numbers are hard to come by, but it is certain that numbers of prescriptions of Ritalin rose dramatically during the 1990s and 2000s, (mostly as a result of massively increased diagnoses of ADHD) and that the number of children currently on Ritalin numbers in the millions, worldwide. There are many worthwhile arguments to be had here about the interface of psychology, medicine, public health policy and the pharmacological treatment of behavioural problems in children, however more pertinent to this discussion is that Ritalin is also being heavily used off-prescription by US students. One study found that 16% of students on some college campuses had used Ritalin as a study aid at some point.

The other current favourite drug in this area is Modafinil, which is generally prescribed to treat narcolepsy and other sleep-related disorders. Its primary mechanism of action is currently unknown and seems to be rather complex, acting on a range of neurotransmitter systems. It shares some characteristics with the more traditional stimulants, but also seems to have less potential for abuse and addiction than the ‘standard’ dopamine-enhancing stimulant drugs. An editorial in Nature by Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir in 2007 brought to wider attention its use by academics; many senior academics described using it to perform better in high-pressures situations, or to counter the effects of jet-lag while travelling. A subsequent informal survey of its readers by Nature revealed that about 20% of respondents said they had used drugs like Modafinil or Ritalin “for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory”.

This apparently widespread use of cognitive-enhancing drugs in ‘normal’ healthy individuals obviously raises a whole raft of questions from the medical (is it safe? what are the long-term effects?) to the ethical (should we start drug-testing students before exams? if everyone else is doing it, will I be left behind if I don’t?). The quest for better, more effective drugs which can enhance various aspects of brain function is a worthwhile and important one, and their use for neuropsychological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and (somewhat more controversially) ADHD is clearly desirable. However, it appears that it’s also difficult to keep these drugs purely in the hands of doctors and patients; and perhaps we shouldn’t even try. If a drug can enhance the mental capacity of anyone, then why shouldn’t anyone use it? We are still a long way off from the vast intellectual leaps that the pharmacologically-assisted character in Limitless makes, but as we learn more about the brain and iteratively produce better ways of stimulating it through drugs (or other technologies) it could be that such enhancement becomes not only a possibility, but an everyday reality for those who wish to (and can afford to) benefit from it.

Matt Wall is a cognitive neuroscientist currently working at UCL, specialising in fMRI, including recently some pharmacological-fMRI. His main web-page is here and he also writes the blog ‘Computing for Psychologists’. Twitter: @m_wall.

Troll Hunter

Anthony Lewis presents a zoological species profile on Trolls – the species of interest in recent release Troll Hunter.

*CONTAINS SPOILERS!*

With their 1000-year lifespan, rock eating tendencies, and slight aversion to light, Øvredal’s trolls are the most unlikely of creatures. But it turns out that they do exist, and have just been hiding in the mountains of Norway. So let’s suspend our disbelief and take at look at the biology of these beasts.

Fundamentally, there are two types of troll, which constitute at least two unique species – the mountain and forest dwellers. Where the troll species line is drawn, however, is unclear, with a variety of sub-types of troll within each general group. Trolls are fiercely territorial mammals, living either as lone individuals or in close social groups. They “eat, shit, mate with and devour everything around them.” Mostly rocks.

Evolution

A major question that arises as we consider the trolls’ existence is their evolution. With an incredibly slow lifecycle and very low reproductive output (lifespan: 1000-1200 years, average offspring produced: 1), adaptation will have been an incredibly slow process. Their life history falls at the extreme “k-selected” end of the spectrum, and their adaptation to environmental and situational changes will have been very slow.  Furthermore, small population sizes (and associated low genetic diversity) caused by very large territories, and a constant vulnerability to basic elements (light), mean that their evolution is almost miraculous. It is likely that they expanded into their current lifestyle and size around the early Cenozoic period, following the demise of the dinosaurs.

The trolls’ greatest asset, that has undoubtedly been a primary reason for their survival despite the evolutionary constraints of their slow life cycles, is their nutritional versatility. That is, “when you eat rocks, it isn’t hard to survive”. Of course above all, the major barrier this fascinating species has had to overcome is their susceptibility to explosion when exposed to light. They therefore have an obligate nocturnal behavioural pattern, and this may in fact have allowed them to exploit night-time resources and avoid conflict with other megafauna during their early evolution.

Being confined to darkness has lead to a strong reliance on a powerful sense of smell, as can be seen by their capacity for sniffing out the scent of people of certain beliefs (although it is as yet unclear whether this penchant for religious folk extends beyond just Christianity – further research is needed). Trolls are not, however, totally blind, and the extra heads grown by certain troll variants reveal the importance of visual communication in social situations. These “protrusions” (for they are not fully functioning heads) primarily play a role in mating rituals and intra-specific conflict, and are likely to have evolved along a similar evolutionary pathway as that of the peacock train and battle cries of red deer stags .

Living underground and deep inside mountains means that trolls are likely to share certain characteristics with burrow dwelling rodents. Living in enclosed environments brings problems of temperature control and oxygen access, and as such they will have specialised respiratory physiology.

One defining feature of the troll life history is likely to be a huge amount of parental investment, both before and after birth. With a gestation period of 10-15 years, the parental investment is huge, and given that most trolls reproduce only once in their lifetime, the expenditure afforded on offspring is large. Parents will defend their offspring with violent determinism, and likely prioritise the life of their child above their own, with young trolls likely only becoming fully self sufficient after a few hundred years. The role that social interactions in communal dens may play in parental care is unclear, although given the species characteristics, cohabiting groups are likely to have a high degree of relatedness and hence altruistic care of offspring is not unlikely.

These trolls present a truly unique case of evolution, and require a great deal of study to see how they managed to overcome the problems of their lifestyle. It is unclear where their closest extant relations are, and whether they are more closely related to the bears or primates, or a monophyletic taxa unto themselves. The benefits of being huge and able to eat almost anything seem to have outweighed the issues they face. It is hard to see how their fragile lifestyle ruled by an inability to deal with vitamin D has allowed them to flourish, but seemingly it has.

On a worrisome note, however, I fear that the trolls face a troubled future. As mentioned above, they will adapt very slowly to large changes in the environment, and as global warming rapidly alters their habitat, it is hard to know if they will be able to amend their behaviour to fit with the new landscape. They’re unlikely to take up sunbathing and bask in the joy of a warmer world. If ever there was a good reason to curb emissions and think about the planet, this is it. Save the trolls, before it’s too late.

Troll hunter is in cinemas now, and provides a witty, original and entertaining break from the norm. Go check it out.

Anthony Lewis is a freelance science writer & designer from London. He recently graduated from Oxford, where he studied Biological Sciences. Have a poke around his website and shout at him on twitter (@AntDLewis).