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Pop Culture, Neuroscience, And COVID-19

Using films to consider coronavirus pandemic from a cognitive side

Photo credit: Universal

Kurt Russell (left) stars in John Carpenter's "The Thing" (1982) in which a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of its victims causing paranoia at a research base in Antarctica where people can't tell who is human and who is alien.

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Many people are turning to movies as distraction while sheltering at home. Neuroscientist Eric Leonardis suggests a couple of films that can be used to look at the coronavirus pandemic from a social dimension.

Aired: March 26, 2020 | Transcript

Many people are turning to movies as a distraction while sheltering at home. Neuroscientist Eric Leonardis suggests a couple of films that can be used to look at the coronavirus pandemic from a social dimension.

Leonardis is an instructor of cognitive science at UC San Diego and his field of expertise is as an emotion researcher.

"I study how humans and animals understand each other's emotional state by using multi-sensory cues from our social counterparts," Leonardis explained. "My research is broadly concerned with how the brain gives rise to emotion and social interactions and how emotions like panic and fear can spread through a population of humans and animals. So I won't be speaking necessarily about the biological aspects of COIVD-19 of these films, but instead the social dimensions and how language and emotions can spread through a population as well as viruses."

Leonardis is compiling a list of pandemic films for people to watch and I will be discussing the full list with him next week on my Cinema Junkie podcast. But here he highlights two of those films: John Carpenter's "The Thing" (1982) and Bruce McDonald's "Pontypool" (2008).

In the case of "The Thing," in which a shape-shifting parasitic alien can assume the appearance of its hosts, the inability to determine who is infected reflects current anxieties about how people can have the coronavirus and not show any signs of infection. In the movie, that leads to intense paranoia and anxiety.

"This inability to be able to tell what it is, this uncertainty or this ambiguity gives rise to these negative emotions that these people are experiencing," Leonardis said. "So this paranoia is very palpable in these cases."

Photo credit: MPI

Stephen McHattie is a radio host in "Pontypool" as a strange virus starts to spread through words.

A less well-known film that Leonardis recommends is "Pontypool," in which an infection is spread through language. For Leonardis this raises the intriguing notion that viruses need not necessarily be biological entities, that there are other types of entities that can spread in the same types of ways, as through words or emotions.

In the film, a doctor named Mendez starts to figure out what's going and concludes: "It's in words, not all words. Not all speaking, but in some. Some words are infected and it spreads out when the contaminated word is spoken. We are witnessing the emergence of a new arrangement for life and our language is its host ... if the bug enters us, it does not enter us by making contact with our eardrum. No, it enters us when we hear a word and understand it, understand it's when the word is understood that the virus takes hold and it copies itself in our understanding."

So it is a disease that infects the brain not in a biological way, but a cognitive one. And each person is susceptible to a different word as the point of infection.

"I think the fact that every brain is unique is a really important thing to me and the fact that there are words that you can say to certain people that can elicit widely different responses than others. So I guess the thing that really comes to mind with this point is that it kind of opens up to something like ideology," Leonardis said. "It's like if you hear the right sentence, it could radicalize you. It could make you join a crowd that's going to be in a mass panic and hysteria. I guess so. The way that I want to sort of analyze this part of the film and relate it to the current situation is that words actually have a huge impact on the way that people respond and the language that public officials use to describe what's going on can spread. And in this case, I think what we see is a lot of American leadership using a lot of racist and xenophobic rhetoric, using words like 'Chinese virus' or 'Wuhan virus.' And I think that that could lead to something like mass scale scapegoating of these others that have invaded our population. This is very classic 20th-century genocide speak. And I would say that racial discourse and language like this can spread just like a virus and it can be just as if not more deadly."

"The Thing" is streaming on multiple services but "Pontypool" appears to only be available on iTunes.

Listen for my Cinema Junkie podcast next week with the full list of Leonardis' pandemic films.

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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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