Pop Culture, Neuroscience, And COVID-19
Speaker 1: 00:00 Many people are turning to movies as distraction while sheltering at home. KPBS arts reporter Beth OCHA, Mondo speaks with Eric Leonardo is an instructor of cognitive science at UC San Diego about using a pair of films to consider the current coronavirus pandemic from social dimensions and see how language and emotions can spread through a population just as well as viruses. Speaker 2: 00:25 Eric, I've had a chance to talk to you about movies before and you've been working on a list of kind of pandemic films to watch while we're sheltering at home. And before we get to some of the films that are on your list, give us a little background on what your particular field is. I'm an instructor of cognitive science at UC ASD and in particular I'm an emotion researcher. I study how humans and animals understand each other's emotional state by using multisensory cues from our social counterparts. 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. Um, so I won't be speaking necessarily about the biological aspects of coven 19 and these films, but instead the social dimensions and how language and emotions can spread through a population as well as viruses. Speaker 2: 01:21 I had a chance to talk to another UC San Diego professor and we kind of covered some of the biological information when we talked about the film contagion. Uh, and one of the things was that when he described what a virus was, that it's this parasite that's looking for a host. You know, immediately one of the films that came to mind is the thing because it's driven to find a host to live in. So the thing is a really interesting film. This is John carpenter's the thing, the one that came out in 1982. And so what kind of issues and ideas does this film bring up that intrigued you at this particular time? The thing really brings up a series of issues that I think we are dealing right now with the cobot 19 pandemic, which is specifically detecting whether or not someone is infected with a virus. Speaker 2: 02:10 And what clues can we actually use to figure that out? Mainly like how do you know it's really me that's interacting with you and not something else. And what kind of cues can we use and other species use to figure this out? Social recognition of other members of one species is a key part of survival and reproductive success in the animal kingdom. In the mammalian brain, there are specific circuits in the brain that are dedicated to identifying same species, pheromones, different species, pheromones, facial expressions, and identifying the actions performed by others of the same species or predators. These tend to be used for designating ingroup and outgroup distinctions. And usually when we're in a crisis, this is usually going to determine who you help and who you blame for the crisis. So these systems usually in other mammals are primarily olfactory. So the S the scene that comes up for me from the film, uh, when it comes to mammalian detection of a social other is the scene with the dog. Speaker 3: 03:10 Go ahead. What are you waiting for? Speaker 2: 03:13 Where the dog that was infected with this virus enters this cage with all of these other dogs present. And at first the dogs just kind of look at this dog that's entering and they don't seem to notice much of a difference. And then it sort of sits down in an awkward way and then suddenly the dogs realized something is wrong. There is some kind of error there. The dog is not behaving the way other dogs behave or it's not smelling the way that other dogs smell Speaker 3: 03:43 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 03:43 about like the sense of smell and how it can actually cue us into whether someone is part of our species or not. It's also related to illness, which I found particularly interesting. So not only do we recognize pheromones of species or other species, but we might be able to also sense when they're ill by their smell. For instance, like when somebody has diabetes, um, their urine smells like rotten apples or when someone has typhoid, their body odor turns to the smell of baked bread. Recently, a Scottish woman became famous for being able to tell if someone has Parkinson's disease by smelling their tee shirts. But keep in mind that this is something that happens both consciously and unconsciously. So there's something really interesting about this dog eye figuring out that there is something very wrong with this creature that has just entered. Speaker 4: 04:29 And so taking the thing, how are you seeing some of that playing out in this current pandemic in, in terms of people can walk around infected and not know it and infect other people and how, how is that adding to kind of the way we're experiencing this pandemic? Speaker 2: 04:51 Yeah, I think that the invisibility and the undetectable city of the Corona virus is what makes it, uh, sort of in some ways kind of banal because like everyone looks fine, right? And yet it's what also makes it more insidious because then it spreads more and then it's going to affect those vulnerable populations. So it is this sort of precise question of the detectability or undetectable [inaudible] of illness through all sorts of symptomatic means. Meaning like the way someone is moving around, whether someone is coughing of course, but even these other less detectable things like how they're smelling and all of these other things. So I think that this film really brings to light a lot of the issues of what happens if someone has this virus and they're walking among us and you can't even tell the difference. Speaker 4: 05:38 And one of the films that you've chosen is a personal favorite of mine, which is Pontypool, which has been described as a zombie film without zombies because of the way the disease kind of spreads and it's through language. So it's something where like a word can infect your brain and kind of unhinge it. So this is a really interesting film and an interesting way to look at the idea of disease or pandemic. Speaker 2: 06:10 This was a really interesting example because it still plays on this idea that maybe the viruses need not be these necessarily biological entities, that there are other types of entities that can spread in the same types of ways, whether it be emotion in the last case, but it could also be words and their meanings. Consequently, so there is a a few quotes that I thought that were really interesting, which was Dr. Mendez, this character, as he starts to slowly figure out what's going on, Speaker 5: 06:41 it's possible what's impossible, doctor, it's viral that much is clear, but a lot of the blood, the blood looked at the air lock all or even in our bodies just here [inaudible] Speaker 6: 07:08 words, but all words, not all speaking, but in some, some words are infected and it spreads out when the contaminated word is spoken, Oh, we are witnessing the emergence of a new arrangement for life and our language is it's Hossed and Speaker 2: 07:33 then he says, if the bug enters us, it does not enter us by making contact with our ear drum. 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. It's basically a disease of some or a virus that infects this part of the brain that that allows us to understand language, which actually I have a theory about before I get to the theory, I'll go to the way that they wind up treating it in the film, which is mainly, um, they realize that because it's related to understanding and the meaning of a word, if they keep repeating a word and other variations that are related to it, um, then it kind of loses its meaning, which actually in the linguistics literature is called semantic satiation, which is the subjective loss of meaning. Speaker 2: 08:25 When you hear a word over and over and over again. I don't know if you've ever done that, like you say the same word over and over again, and it sounds like just mush. It doesn't even sound like the thing that you originally started with this type of phenomenon is actually studied in psycho linguistics and in the brain, the area of the brain that is responsible for understanding, written and spoken language is known as Vernick keys area. And when this area of the temporal lobe is damaged, um, people actually are not able to, the meaning of written or spoken words. So I would say that this virus very likely takes place in a very Nikki's area to some extent. However, um, there's also another part of the brain that's very close to Vernon keys area that is responsible for what is called phonological processing, which is the sound of words. So for instance, if a word sounded like or rhymed like another one, like in the movie they say they start with symbol and then they say simple and then they say sample. Those aren't related in meaning they're related in the way that they sound. So what I would say is the reason why this treatment seems to work is some kind of relationship between those two parts of the brain. Speaker 4: 09:35 I mean the thing that's so kind of chilling in the film too is the way you can almost see a brain kind of come apart. Just as a person kind of hears a word and starts to say something. It was a really well done. Um, film in that respect. There is something [inaudible] Speaker 2: 09:54 quite disturbing about that. And it mainly, I think the one thing that kinda got me was the idea that it's not the same word for everyone. In fact, everyone has a different word that their brain is sort of stuck on. And this idea, 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 wildly different responses than others. Um, so I guess the thing that really comes to mind with, with this point is that it kind of opens up to something like ideology. It's like if sometimes 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. So for this, 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 Wu Han virus. Um, and I think that that could lead to something like mass scales to be Goding of these, um, others that have invaded our population. This is very classic 20th century genocide speak. Uh, 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. Speaker 4: 11:27 And the interesting thing too about this particular film is it's Canadian and the, it's based on a book where the author is from a country where there are two languages spoken French and English. Speaker 2: 11:41 I, and I think it's interesting that they chose the English language as the one that is infected that might speak to some kind of Quebec qua type of separatism. But I don't know. Speaker 4: 11:51 Okay. I want to thank you very much for talking Speaker 1: 11:54 to me about some unusual pandemic films, and we'll talk some more on my cinema junkie podcast about some additional titles that people can seek out while they're sheltering at home. Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. That was Beth AGA, Mondo speaking with UC San Diego, neuroscientist, Eric Lee and artists. You can hear Beth's full interview on her Sinema junkie podcast next week.