“Science is magic that works.” From an early age, Jessica Brommelhoff, neuropsychology post-doctoral fellow at UCLA’s Semel Institute and Exchange consultant, was draw to science. Explore her early inspiration, science in the movies, and alien hand syndrome.
What drew you to science in general and to the study of the relationship between depression and dementia?
As for science in general: I came across a diary I had when I was 6. The entry for Christmas that year included, “I got a microscope, some slides, and science in a suitcase!!!” In other words, I do not think there was a time when I was ever NOT into science. For me, Kurt Vonnegut’s quote from Cat’s Cradle sums it up best—“Science is magic that works.”
As for what I do now: Since reading Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat for a psychology class in high school, the intersection of the brain and psychology has fascinated me. I wasn’t always interested in geriatrics. In fact, I spent one semester as an undergraduate research assistant in the Infant Cognition Lab at MIT—totally other end of the spectrum! I basically got interested in the aging brain through a class I took while getting my master’s in epidemiology and public health. With an ever-increasing life expectancy for the average American, it seemed like an especially important and rapidly expanding field. This led me to study aging, and more specifically the relationship between depression and dementia, for my Ph.D. work.
Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science when you were growing up? What were your favorites? What do you watch now?
Two shows come to mind immediately: Mr. Wizard and 3-2-1 Contact. I was always so jealous of the child assistants Mr. Wizard had each week. Nowadays, I’m a fan of Nova, Dr. Who, and pretty much anything Joss Whedon-related.
Do you think the massive aging Baby Boomer population will have much of an impact on the types of movies that are made?
I absolutely think so. Even more so, I think it will dramatically alter how older adults are portrayed.
How important is it that the audience sees science portrayed accurately in film and television?
I’m sure that largely depends upon the story being told. I mean, would anyone argue that shows like Dr. Who and Battlestar Galactica should be based on proven science? Or that MacGyver should not be able to save the world with a toothpick and bubblegum (okay, I’ve actually never seen MacGyver, but I hear this is the kind of thing he did). While fiction should be able to occasionally bend science to tell a more engaging story, I think it is very important for film and television to not perpetuate harmful and stigmatizing myths about mental illness (e.g., schizophrenics are violent and unpredictable). I think television and film is a great medium for dispelling these myths.
What do you think are the two most “sci-fi”-type neuropsychological syndromes?
Capgras syndrome and, of course, alien hand syndrome. Capgras syndrome is the belief that someone close to you has been replaced by an identical imposter, kind of like the pod people in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Alien hand syndrome (sci-fi because of its name) is a condition where a person does not recognize one of their hands as their own. Despite having full sensation in that limb, they appear to have no control over their hand and may even be unaware of what it is doing unless it is brought to their attention.